As an education professional, you may have noticed that children are spending less time outdoors and more time inside and in front of screens.
Unfortunately, today's children have less freedom to enjoy the outdoors than past generations. Surveys have shown that parents are not letting their children go outdoors as much as they did in their own childhood – in the UK, one-third of all children do not play outside at all (Sustrans, 2016).
Meanwhile, a global survey found that more than half of all children get less than an hour of outdoor play a day, with some spending less time outdoors than maximum security prisoners (for details, see Carrington, 2016).
With these alarming statistics, there is no better time than now to encourage outdoor learning and prioritise the "whole child" in education. As well as supporting curriculum delivery, outdoor learning has numerous benefits to wider learning, social skills, and health and wellbeing – so treat it as a must-have and be robust in your planning.
Schools can incorporate outdoor activities into lessons and advocate for the importance of outdoor learning in your community.
What is outdoor learning?
Outdoor learning is simple to define – it is a lesson or activity planned by a teacher that takes place in an outdoor environment. Outdoor learning is not limited to any subject area and can be used to teach a wide range of topics, including science, history, language arts, and mathematics.
You might hear outdoor learning referred to as Forest School, outdoor pursuits like orienteering, nature studies, bug-hunting or playing outside. All of these are highly valuable.
But outdoor learning can also be effective when the ideas are intrinsically linked to the curriculum. In essence, teachers can explore the outdoor environment looking for the best opportunities to teach the curriculum and apply the relevant knowledge and skills.
When we talk about the outdoors, we are referring to any outdoor space, whether it is a small school courtyard or a huge park surrounding your setting. Outdoor learning does not have to take place deep in the forest, on the beach or in any kind of adventurous environment. It is about considering the opportunities that are available to you. While greenery and wild areas are beneficial, they are not essential for outdoor learning.
Top tips for outdoor learning
Outdoor learning offers a unique learning environment that can enhance pupils' learning experiences and provide many benefits for their mental and physical health. However, getting started with outdoor learning can be challenging, especially if you don't have a specific plan or outdoor resources. Let’s look at some essentials.
Start with what you have: Many schools don't have large outdoor spaces or specialised outdoor classrooms, but that doesn't mean you can't start teaching outdoors. You can use any available space, such as a square of tarmac, to provide a different learning experience from being indoors. Once you start using your school grounds regularly for learning, you will start to see new possibilities for developing them.
Train the children: It may take some time for your students to adjust to learning outdoors instead of playing. Start with small, easy activities and be prepared to spend some time sorting out things like coats and wellies. Once children are aware of your expectations within your outdoor space, everything should run much more smoothly.
Forage and collect: Use as much natural material as possible in your outdoor learning. You can start your sessions with a scavenger or treasure hunt to collect inspiration and the required resources. Foraging and collecting help children connect to nature, seasons, and their local environment. Keep a record of what you use and need and keep building on this until you have a “go-to” resource inventory. This will help your ideas to flourish.
Assess the risks: Risk assessments are your friends. They enable you to do cool and interesting stuff with your children safely. The latest DfE health and safety for schools guidance (2022) recommends that children should be able to experience a wide range of activities, and health and safety measures should help them do this safely, not stop them.
Mix it up: Use all the aspects of being outdoors to maximise the benefits for your pupils. Don’t just stick to outdoor learning for one subject – stretch it right across the curriculum until it becomes an embedded part of your school life.
Look for curriculum opportunities: Your outdoor space is a free asset that you can use to enhance learning across the curriculum. Consider each element of the curriculum and identify opportunities where it could be well taught outside. Looking at plants in key stage 2 science, for example, can be given much more context when children have the opportunity to see plants growing in their natural habitats. This isn’t an add-on to the existing curriculum – it’s at the heart of it.
Work as a team: Adopting a whole-school approach to outdoor learning helps to embed the concept across the school until it is considered an intrinsic part of your curriculum. Assign some staff development time to consider your outdoor space as a team, and brainstorm how it can be used effectively to teach different aspects of the curriculum. Working as a team will also help you to map-out a well-structured and progressive outdoor curriculum.
Be flexible: The outdoor environment offers so many learning opportunities that you might find your lesson takes an unexpected course, with questions arising from the children. Don’t worry – embrace this! It shows the children are developing their inquisitive natures and curiosity.
- Natalie Hauser is from Teach Outdoors, a company that provides curriculum-linked outdoor education to children across the UK as well as training and free resources. Visit www.teachoutdoors.co.uk
Useful links and resources
- www.outdoor-learning.org : The IOL is a membership institute that champions safe and effective outdoor learning. Its website provides a range of resources, including research, guidance, and training opportunities. They also offer accreditation programmes for outdoor educators:
- Council for Learning Outside the Classroom: The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom is a national charity that champions all learning that happens beyond the classroom. Its work supports educators and schools: www.lotc.org.uk
- Headteacher Update Podcast: Our recent episode on outdoor learning offered a wealth of ideas for taking learning outside of the classroom, including activity suggestions, curriculum integration and bad weather advice: http://bit.ly/3KHtroA
- www.teachoutdoors.co.uk/contact-2/ : This event is being organised by Teach Outdoors at the University of Northampton on June 13, 2023. For details, visit
- Sustrans: Sustrans has a programme of activities that can help to increae physical activity and reduce congestion, and improve safety around schools: www.sustrans.org.uk/for-professionals/education/
- Carrington: Three-quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates – survey, 2016: https://bit.ly/3NVhpcR
- Sustrans: Research shows kids play outside half as much as parents did, 2016: https://bit.ly/44OEzrn
- DfE: Health and safety: Responsibilities and duties for schools, 2022: https://bit.ly/42OLQpp