On Outdoor Learning

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It was a Spring day in 1994.  28 children plus assorted members of staff from a Primary school in Southampton were walking behind me through the woodland at the Environmental Education Centre in the New Forest where I used to work.  I’d walked these paths dozens of times, but this walk was different.  Each day primary aged children from a range of schools visited our woodland to go on mini beast hunts, learn about natural history and ecology and dip in our very large ponds.  This particular group had been staying at our nearby farm and residential centre where, each morning and evening, they would take turns on a rota of duties – milking cows and goats, feeding and mucking out the pigs, collecting eggs or helping in the kitchens.  Our aim was fairly unique at the time: to provide the children, whether on the residential trips or on day visits to the woods, an immersive experience.  Every opportunity we had to encourage learning was experiential – learning by doing and learning by being.  The outcomes were profound and the effects on the children were lasting.

Although we walked through the woods every day, when we had a residential group we would take them on one special and far deeper experience: a walk through the woods at night.  With no torches.  And not just that, the children (and staff) were left to sit alone (if they wished) or in pairs to be completely still and silent.  In fact the whole walk was taken without talking; the children and staff following quietly for perhaps half and hour, sometimes longer if the group were particularly responsive.  Again, the effect was profound.  The feedback from teachers was always one of amazement that their children had coped with so well with such a challenge, immersing themselves in an experience so decidedly alien from the lives that they usually led in the nearby towns and cities.
From that Spring Day nearly 22 years ago we can wind the clock forward and the world has developed and evolved around us.  It is far different now from anything that we, as  adults-parents-teachers, would be familiar with from our own childhoods.  Certainly the Y6 children on the walk with me that night in 1994 had a very different world to contend with – we’d only just started to hear about the internet, computers were still the size of a small suitcase and “mobile technology” generally meant carrying something heavy and expensive in a bag across your shoulders.  But even back in the 90’s we were already talking about the dearth of opportunity for children to play outdoors, health and safety regulations stemming the flow of fun in playgrounds and less and less sport played in schools.  We were also talking about human impact on our planet, the need for greater understanding about living sustainably and within our means and about the loss of natural habitats through the growth in housing and transport networks.  Messages as familiar now as they were 20 years ago.
I have now been teaching for 25 years and through this time I have witnessed the great cycle of educational innovation, fashion and revision that many of my older colleagues told me about when I first started out.  I was younger and found it hard to believe, yet now I have reached a point when I can reflect on what this has meant.   Yet, what fascinates and motivates me more, rather than the changes, is the consistency that has remained in teaching, learning and schools.  Good parenting has always embraced the idea of boundaries and cuddles.  Good teaching has always excited and enthralled, capturing imaginations and inspiring young people to excel.  And children have always been children: they are brimming with energy and limitless curiosity, discovering their world for the first time.  When it comes to the debate about the changes in childhood experience, the usual run of digital-age-related reasons can be rolled out.  Yet the “modern life” tag is overused and far too convenient – a lazy excuse, perhaps.  Children crave connection with the world around them.  They have a need to understand how it works, how they can influence it and how it influences them, from how to make friends and communicate to what happens when you poke a stick at something. As adults we are absolutely key in helping children make these connections and develop their understanding.  We have the opportunity (and responsibility) to provide them with experiences and guidance in these early years, establishing values and norms which will ensure that they are happy and productive throughout their lives.
IMG_0920The natural world is a visceral, real, messy and untidy experience, arguably well-suited to many children!  In the same way that vinyl is making a comeback, it is time to turn, or return, to the analogue world about us and find ways that children can experience the outdoors intimately, deeply and on a personal level, where it is just for them.  At the heart of this experience is the opportunity to just be outdoors with nothing more than sticks, logs, leaves, mud and perhaps a fire for cooking.  Schools have become enthralled by the Forest Schools movement, which aims to take children out into the natural world and use this as a place to develop a closer connection with the natural world, learn skills and and gain a sense of comfort and enjoyment “out of doors”.  However, true learning comes from experience and too much structure stifles creativity.  Therefore designing learning experience does not take much more equipment than a pair of sturdy boots and some clothes that can get grubby and generally protects against damp! The walks in the woods at night were amongst the most exciting learning experiences that I have delivered in my career.  There was no equipment, no learning objective or set of guidelines.  Just me, the children and the members of staff.
AIMG_0981t our school we are blessed with beautiful woodland and we try to make the most of this wonderful resource.  By playing or just being in the woods the children learn to create, to imagine and to care and the more that we can encourage this – at school or at home – the better their future will be for them.  We know that emotionally intelligent people become very successful, achieving more than those with higher IQs ti.me/1H8npbz.  Therefore, through an emphasis in learning outdoors, children develop empathy for the wider world and understanding their place in it.  It is a great way for children to grow the emotional capability to manage their life and their relationships better in the future.  They won’t know it now, but they will thank you for it later

All part of the service…

This is from our Mrs Richards…
IMG_5527I discovered this evening that Pennthorpe offers a first rate ‘car start’ service for daft parents who leave on their car’s lights and flatten the battery. Expert mechanical advice is available on site, as well as the services of a highly experienced airline pilot should alternative modes of transport become necessary.
Pretty cool school!
Many many thanks to the fabulous Mr Jones, Captain McWilliams and Mrs McCracken

From the Antarctic to Kensington

 

So how did a visit to the Royal Geographical Society Exhibition, “Enduring Eye”, lead to Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens?

The initial aim was personal. It was the “rediscovery” of Sir Ernest Shackleton as a model for successful leadership some ten years ago or so that led to my fascination with his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17.  The story of the survival of all 28 crew members in such adverse and varied conditions is both a miracle and testament to the strength of planning, organisation and the achievement of shared goals, namely “to stay alive”.

So during the week of half term I planned to take myself off to the RGS (IBG) to see an exhibition of photographs and movie taken by the Australian Frank Hurley during the expedition. As something like this does not happen very often, and since it was half term, I thought I would invite the Year 8 pupils at my school to come along if they wished. Certainly there is historical significance and a powerful story that I feel would benefit the children to experience.

I had a plan: travel to London, see the exhibition, have lunch, travel home.  Keep it simple, have clear objectives, allow enough time.

Five of us – myself and four Year 8s – travelled up to London by train having met at Horsham.  We emerged eventually from South Kensington underground station to be greeted by the half term queues snaking along Exhibition Road to get into the Natural History and Science Museums.  There is a certain satisfaction in passing these by when you have a more specific, and in this case, unique objective in mind. The stroll up to the RGS in bright spring-like sunshine was a delight.  Finding the RGS and the well-organised exhibition space was like discovering a hidden gem.  Almost off the beaten path, the RGS itself is a beacon for the exploration of our world; to seek to understand that which is beyond our own boundaries, our own experiences.  In a 21st Century context, its relevance seems greater now as we wrestle with the rapid changes in society, technology, politics and our environment.

To see Hurley’s photographs along with the text of the exhibition, breathes new life into a well-documented, oft-studied but nevertheless unbelievable series of events that happened 100 years ago.  One of the boys was very well-briefed, at least thanks to the BBCs dramatisation starring Sir Kenneth Branagh.  This helped hugely as we wound our way in and out of the displays.  Each carefully chosen photo and accompanying text telling the compelling story of the Endurance and its crew; of the hope and expectation that was eventually defeated in the harshest of Antarctic winters, to be replaced by Shackleton’s revision of his mission’s goals: “to save life”.  As the story of Shackleton and his crew unfolded in the months after the Endurance was lost, the boys found a great deal of interest in the minutiae of the events: What happened to the dogs? How were the photographs saved? What did they eat?  Sifting through the details, it explains how survival became possible; living day-to-day, hour-to-hour with the aim of staying alive galvanising the crew, providing a clear shared purpose and offering focus in the tasks that were essential in getting everyone from one day to the next.

Rather than being a large and overwhelming exhibition, the displays of photographs and movie were discrete and compact.  There was a feeling of the experience being long enough to be manageable, detailed enough to be fascinating and brief enough to elicit the comment “is that it?” with a twinge of disappointment.  It certainly allowed us to achieve our first objective and, as we remerged into the Kensington sunlight, the next one hove into view: what’s for lunch?

Now I have to admit that hadn’t entirely thought this one through.  We all had spending money and I had a notional idea we would find somewhere for a quick solution – a noodle bar? Sandwiches?  Pizza, even?  But the boys, having run the gamut of possibilities (including Sushi and discounting McDonalds on my insistence) alighted on the possibility of visiting Subway.  Although it could be construed as fast food, I acquiesced and dutifully consulted the Google Maps Oracle for the nearest location.  There were two options both 25 minutes away in opposite directions – Paddington or Earls Court.  Neither salubrious locations, yet neither is Subway salubrious.  However, the swathe of green on the map between Kensington Gore and Paddington made up our minds: we would stretch our legs and take in the sights of Hyde Park.

First, was the quiz about the Albert Memorial and the Royal Albert Hall which highlighted the boys’ rather sketchy knowledge of Queen Victoria’s grand gesture of love and devotion to the memory of her husband.  However, they mastered that and we walked on.  Of greater fascination were the tame (relatively) green parakeets that readily feed on peanuts, perching on the hands of passers-by to retrieve them.  It certainly attracted plenty of those and some of the boys were keen to share their knowledge of precisely why the birds were there.  That said, there is something magical about such close contact with a wild animal, albeit one that is not meant to be there and is now rather less than “wild”!

Parakeets were followed by Peter Pan’s statue, to ensure that the chance wasn’t wasted to connect with a little literature.  And then a longer walk to reach the lunch venue.  On the way I learned, from one of the boys, that beneath the box for the signal button at pedestrian crossings is a little grey, ridged cone-shaped dial which rotates when it is safe to cross designed for visually- and hearing-imparied pedestrians. I am grateful to have been educated.

Lunch at Subway, in the company of hungry pre-teen boys was a masterclass in how to consume a foot-long sandwich at speed and mercifully didn’t last long.  At this point time was still very much on our side and a return to Hyde Park, with the general aim of a walk back to South Kensington, was agreed.  On the way, a series of street names with the word Sussex in it (Sussex Place, Sussex Street, Sussex Square, Sussex Mews E.) made for an entertaining distraction.  However, it was on reaching Hyde Park again that the day took an unexpected but meaningful turn.

“Is there a playground here, sir?” was the question.  “Yes”, was the answer.  The fantastic – and usually packed – Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens was only a short detour.  Time was not yet against us for our return train ride and hadn’t been for the whole trip.  Avoiding the peak of rush hour by catching an early enough train to take us back to Horsham by 5.00pm was one of my hidden aims!  I didn’t want us to feel rushed or pressed for time, but they were asking if they could go and play.  So why not?  What’s more important?

So we walked a little further than anticipated and the boys had half and hour   So they headed one way, I headed to the conveniently located, parent-friendly coffee bar for the obligatory latte and beetroot seed cake. Exactly 30 minutes later, several emails written and read, the boys come trotting back flushed, excited and full of stories.  Exactly the outcome playing should have.

And then, Bayswater to Victoria – getting close to 4.00pm. I hadn’t looked at train times.  Trusting instead to experience and an anticipation that transport out of the Nation’s Capital would be reasonably frequent, I believed that we would make it back by our stated return time of 5.00pm.  And it is with gratitude to Southern Rail, that the 16.09 from Victoria arrived in Horsham at 16.55.  It couldn’t have happened any better if I’d planned it!

So finally, with parents met and boys safely returning home I was left to reflect.  A day I had set aside to engage with a drama that occurred 100 years ago, enabled me to make connections with a purpose: providing an opportunity to share Shackleton’s story with a new generation, sharing London in all its varied glory, giving children a chance to learn and play and realising that our rail network really can run on time!

Certainly something to be repeated…

 

Why we teach…

We were shown this short clip today by Sir John Jones at a conference for school leaders.  Sir John’s conviction that we leave a legacy is born out on the profound response that Ian Wright shows on meeting the first “dominant male figure” in his life.  It means everything to him.  Without Syd Picton, Ian Wright could not have achieved all that he has.

This is what happens when we teach well.  We leave a legacy.  To hold that precious potential in our hands and help it flourish is a great gift that we as teachers possess.  By giving our time and our passion, by instilling desire and providing opportunity to develop, the children in our care can be left with a legacy as strong as Syd’s.

November is Conference Season…

IMG_0109Writing at this time last year about the first Hertford Youth Conference, it is a thrill, a delight, to be writing again about another Youth Conference.  This one took place on November 7th at King Edward School Birmingham.  24 Schools from across the Midlands and beyond, came together to share their experiences of positive, proactive Community Action and hear from from inspirational speakers.

IMG_0111The conference was organised under the flag of the Independent Schools Council’s (ISC) Community Action Working Group, lead by Vikki Askew from James Allen’s Girls School, and hosted at the KES Performing Arts Centre through the coordinating expertise of Tom Arbuthnott (Director of Outreach at KES).  The ISC Working Group seeks to promote and expand community activity and service education in schools.  Through such endeavours young people develop the empathy, resilience and communication that will make them more productive, valuable and fulfilled members of society in their future.

Inspiration at the conference came from hearing from those who have something real to say.  For example, John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, speaking in the morning, brought authenticity and a raw reality.  An uncompromising view on the economics of poverty – delivered with great humour and comic timing – made everyone sit up and take notice.  We certainly knew we were in for a different kind day.

IMG_0113As I wrote at this time last year, from time to time something happens, in planning an event, that is greater and more successful than anticipated.  Once again, staging a StudentMeet (like a TeachMeet but for…well you get the picture) provided that platform for those who indeed had something concrete and positive to reflect upon.  That remarkable synergy that occurs when young people can speak about their passions and their commitments occurred again this year with 10 schools taking to the stage to speak either for 2 or 7 minutes.  The topics ranged from Partnerships with other schools domestically or overseas and fundraising events to environmental activism and in-school service days.  Each one of the speakers – nervous and in a variety of states of preparedness – spoke from the heart to an audience of their peers.  It means more when the rhetoric disappears and you hear the reality of the developing ethical and moral sensibilities of young people at school.

IMG_0112And even more, the whole StudentMeet session – over an hour – was hosted with humour and confidence by two 6th formers.  Lokesh and Usman embraced the challenge that I threw at them to compère the StudentMeet, never having done so before – or even being familiar with the format.  I am incredibly impressed with the ease and confidence that they took on the task; an approach that inspired confidence in those nervously waiting their turn to be chosen. The mechanics are simple, the format entertaining and the outcomes are disproportionately exceptional.  Feedback from those present indicates just how valuable they found the StudentMeet.

Holding a Youth Conference is about empowering those for whom the event is held; enabling them to speak directly to each other therefore provides the greatest possible benefit.  So, if the past 12 months suggests anything, perhaps we are now looking for the next Youth Conference and StudentMeet in November 2016.