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
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