Wellies at the ready in the outdoor classroom

Written by: HTU | Published:

Making the most of every centimetre of the school grounds has ensured that learning at Boston West Academy is inspiring and embedded in the real world. Headteacher Mike Schofield explains.

Wellies at the ready, an ample supply of mud and lots of imagination – all crucial elements of the curriculum at Boston West Academy. This is no radical new agenda, but part of a thoughtful approach to learning and engagement that has led to better results and a richer experience for everyone involved. Outdoor learning is an exciting, sensible and increasingly necessary part of running a school. 

The school was in special measures when I joined 13 years ago. In particular, it was the children’s bond with the school that needed work; their general attitude to learning was passive, while the behaviour of a significant minority was disruptive. 

Now, the children are engaged, they’re fired up and enjoying themselves, and standards have been maintained at a high level. It started with an environmental focus. I joined at the same time as a teacher with a science background, whose passion for environmental issues complemented my belief in the power of first-hand experience and real-life learning opportunities.

We can do anything now through IT, the full life-cycle of a plant can be shown gloriously and in an instant on a screen – and that has its place, but nothing will ever compare with what’s learnt and felt from working with real things. 

Schools have an important role in countering the modern life of boxes – we live in boxes, hard-built houses, shutting out the natural world; parents’ busy lives and anxiety about the world beyond the security of their box, too often results in children engaging with another box, the TV or a computer. 

Then, when they do manage to get out, it is to a school full of boxes! It is not human, and not how we were made or meant to live. One of the first things we did to change the whole-school culture was to get the children directly involved and feeling valued. 

We started one of the early primary school councils, asking children what changes they would like. Initially, they focused on the playground, which presented an opportunity for “quick wins” to improve the grey rectangle with faded netball court markings. 

We also had a lot of green space with some trees but none of it developed. Over time, we have made use of every square centimetre of our school grounds, allowing the children to drip ideas through and be part of a transformation. We have a woodland area, pond, a place for camp fires, a teepee (symbolic of early settlement for lessons, but also a very handy place to store our firewood), a mud factory (where children can make anything with mud, sticks, leaves, acorns, whatever is around), and a “collection” of sculptures made by local artists to add a touch of inspiration. 

Today, every subject is delivered outside – maths, English, science, history, art and so on – and there is a minimum weekly time expectation, beyond PE sessions, for children to be learning outdoors. We have an “essentials” framework of skills and knowledge, but with a significant level of flexibility for staff to respond to the children’s needs, interests and what is happening in the world around them. 

With wellies at hand, learning can always be taken outside to seize the moment. So children work in, with and at times learn specifically about the natural environment. There is a focus on teaching skills, not only within subject areas but in group interaction while solving real, practical problems. Who can say which pieces of knowledge are the most important? So we try and equip children with the skills to acquire any kind of knowledge they need or that excites them. 

Being outdoors and surrounded by real things, with their own character and subject to all the variations of the natural world, the sun, the wind, rain, snow, is always an inspiring and liberating starting point for learning. 

Unless the weather is really bad, we’ll be out there. For example, to teach adjectives in year 1: the teacher read Charlie’s Superhero Underpants and then developed the whole lesson in the grounds with children searching for items of clothing that the wind had blown off the washing line, in keeping with the story. What resulted was motivation, engagement, challenge through differentiated tasks and good learning outcomes for every child. 

We also teach the children bush-craft skills:

  • Lighting fires and cooking – marshmallows, popcorn, bread and soup.
  • Learning to use knives, starting with a potato peeler, progressing to a “real” bush-craft knife, they whittle wood to make a range of useful items – tent pegs, cooking sticks, pens, plant labels and stick pens.
  • Making shelters in the wood, for their “play people” in the early years, which can be used as a stimulus for writing, while older children build shelters for themselves using ropes (and knot-tying skills), tarpaulins and natural materials.

We also have a sustainable supply of willow for weaving, harvested each year from our willow maze. When year 4 were learning about “Invaders and Settlers”, they made a willow long ship and re-created a Viking invasion through role-play, which really brought their learning alive. It makes learning “real”, meaningful and promotes a desire to learn more.  Developing our grounds has also proved to be successful in building a partnership with parents. 

Every term we have a weekend Grounds/Eco-Day when everyone pitches in – parents, children, staff and the wider community, working as a team for something that everyone can see is important – and we have fun! It is a great leveller, much more likely, as a starter, to engage any “hard-to-reach” families than through more traditional curriculum sessions. 

There is a danger that when children find learning really difficult, we give them more of the same. Take “Fred”, who found reading, writing and maths particularly difficult. He had a challenging home life, and struggled with everyday lessons. 

As soon as he was outside, it was different – here was space and some freedom. He was moving more into his comfort zone. He could build a shelter; he was good at it. You could see it in his face, “I can do this...”, and then it showed in his self-esteem and status within his peer group. This new-found confidence meant he was much more likely to keep trying in all of his lessons, when the challenges were tough and it would be “easy” to disengage or become disruptive. 

Not all staff are equally comfortable with taking children outside – like parents, they worry! They need to build confidence, establish rules and working area boundaries. In fact, in our experience, children’s behaviour is always excellent! We do the necessary risk-assessments, and within this framework we teach the children about the risks and how to be safe, gradually building their understanding and ability to make their own judgements – surely a key life-skill. 

The original “science teacher” is now our outdoor learning leader; she provides in-house coaching, as well as supporting teachers’ planning. Using our on-site outdoor learning centre – called The Hive – we now offer training courses to staff beyond the school, who wish to develop their own practice.

The next stage in our plans is a Garden of Inspiration, part wildflower meadow and performance area, part garden, themed around the elements (a bubbling stream over a rock for water, an interactive chime tree for earth, a dragon in a cave surrounded by red and orange flowers for fire). Adjacent will be an allotment with poly-tunnel, plastic bottle greenhouse and a small fruit orchard with native Lincolnshire varieties.

The whole area will be used to teach children about the life-cycle of plants and biodiversity. The allotments will enable children to experience growing their own food to cook on the camp fire. 

As a CfBT Schools Trust school, we are actively sharing what we have learnt among our community of schools, and further afield with schools in Scandinavia and Africa. Importantly, for the future of the approach, we are carrying out some action-research with the backing of CfBT to examine the link between outdoor learning and children’s performance. But I think I already know what we’ll find! 

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