By | 01/10/2018

‘Outdoor learning isn’t a subject or a topic, it’s a way of teaching’ and the evidence is that outdoor learning has a positive impact not only on young people but teachers and schools as well 1. In the early years of a child’s schooling there is a clear understanding of the role that outdoor learning plays in their development.  Recently, Scotland’s chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, referring to funding released by the Scottish Government to support outdoor play in early years settings said: “There is a growing body of research that shows children with higher levels of active outdoor play have improved cognition, which can result in better academic performance and contribute to closing the attainment gap.” Access to the outdoors is a regular feature of most Early Years settings with young children choosing to move freely from the indoors to the outdoors. In the early years of development the ‘outdoors provides children with space to move freely: movement, along with play, has been described as one of the most natural and powerful modes of learning for young children…when outdoors, children can construct on a bigger scale, explore the world at first hand and experience natural phenomena.2

It therefore seems strange that although we seem to understand the value of being in an outdoor setting at one stage of our schooling the door becomes increasingly shut as we move through later stages of the education process. The increasing isolation from the real world into which young people will eventually have to move seems totally counter intuitive in the face of all the evidence for engagement in the outdoors and the world beyond the classroom. How else are we to help prepare young people for the world beyond school if they do not experience it first hand? If we do not play our part in preparing them in a broad and balanced way they just become someone else’s problem. For example, the increasing number of higher education students who fail to complete their initial year of study, especially when living away from home. Low levels of resilience and adaptability of some first year students was an issue identified and addressed at Leeds Beckett University3. The introduction of additional support and an Adventure-based residential has help with the transition into more independent living and learning and has had a marked impact on retention and improved educational attainment and wellbeing. Future success is not just about passing exams alone and needs to sit alongside the development of Life Skills and experience of the wider world. In this way there will not only be a benefit to the individual but society at large and, when accessible to all, improve social mobility.

‘Education in its broadest sense is not just about delivering a curriculum. It is about giving children the chance to extend their life skills. It is about developing confidence. It is about fostering resilience and a sense of responsibility. And- let us not forget – it is about the enjoyment, engagement and excitement about venturing out into the real world, with all its capacity for uncertainty, surprise, stimulation and delight.’ T. Gill, 20104 Nothing Ventured …Balancing risks and benefits in the outdoors. EOC, p22.

So, what are the benefits of outdoor learning and how best can we plan for effective outdoor learning?


1. The outdoors is good for us!

The outdoors and the natural environment, in particular, is inherently good for us. We have recognised this for many years and it is something that has recently been highlighted in DEFRA’s 25 year Environment Plan.

‘We know that regular contact with green spaces, such as the local park, lake, or playground, can have a beneficial impact on children’s physical and mental health’5

When outdoors young people are usually more active and often participate in active play, learning or outdoor activities. ‘Moreover, the benefits of regular outdoor play continue into later life. There is clear evidence to show that a child’s attitude towards exercise lays in the foundation for their habits as an adult’6.   We also know that both physical exercise7 and regular contact with the natural environment have a positive impact on mental health8. For example:

‘Findings suggest that everyday play settings make a difference in overall symptom severity in children with ADHD. Specifically, children with ADHD who play regularly in green play settings have milder symptoms than children who play in built outdoor and indoor settings. This is true for all income groups and for both boys and girls’9.

After all, it can be great fun being outdoors, despite the challenges of the weather! And it is often one of the childhood experiences that stick in our minds as being memorable – ‘outdoor learning creates healthy happy learners’10


2. There is an impact on learning

‘There is a sizeable body of evidence, including several reviews, which demonstrate positive associations between multiple forms of learning in the natural environment and a range of educational, social, developmental and mental or physical health outcomes’11. This has been backed up with recent international research that ‘has also evidenced that exposure to green environments improves children’s academic results and memory’12. A study from Derby University has shown that ‘children who were more connected to nature had significantly higher English attainment’13.  When linked to specific writing intervention a recent Education Endowment Foundation report found that there was a significant impact on learning. This ‘project aimed to use memorable experiences and an approach called ‘Self-Regulated Strategy Development’ (SRSD) to help struggling writers in Years 6 and 7. Memorable experiences, such as trips to local landmarks or visits from World War II veterans, were used as a focus for writing lessons.

Overall, the project appeared to have a large positive impact on writing outcomes. The overall effect size for writing, comparing the progress of pupils in the project to similar pupils who did not participate was +0.74. This effect size was statistically significant, meaning that it is unlikely to have occurred by chance, and can be envisaged as saying that participating pupils made approximately nine months’ additional progress compared to similar pupils who did not participate in the intervention’ 14.

The Education Foundation has also recongised the importance that adventure learning can have on attainment and has recently stated that:

‘Overall, studies of adventure learning interventions consistently show positive benefits on academic learning. On average, pupils who participate in adventure learning interventions make approximately four additional months’ progress over the course of a year. There is also evidence of an impact on non-cognitive outcomes such as self-confidence’15.


3. More social confident young people

Progressive exposure to learning outdoors provides a route for young people to become more resilient16. They can move from exploring the world outside of the classroom to a first night away from home and onto a demanding expedition in this country or abroad. This progressive process helps develop life-long skills and attitudes that contribute towards healthy and fulfilled lives. Outdoor learning provides opportunities to develop social and emotional resilience, support wider learning and develop broader interests17.

Over the last few years the importance of developing ‘character’ 18 and’ Life Skills’ 19 has been recognised as an major contributor to a young person’s life chances and essential for succeeding in an ever changing work place and wider world.  In a recent DfE survey20 72% of schools said that they used ‘outward bound activities’ to develop positive character traits.

‘Numerous studies have shown that character attributes are correlated with educational attainment, school attendance and positive attitudes towards school. A recent review from the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) found that good character attributes at the age of 10 were more important than ‘cognitive skills’ (using measures of literacy and numeracy) at that age when it came to predicting mental health and life satisfaction in later life’21.

The outdoors has often been referenced as ‘character building’ bringing people together to overcome common challenges. The personal and social impacts of outdoor learning have been identified in a number of studies22 with such impacts being particularly marked when young people take part in residential experiences. Residentials are a surprisingly powerful developmental experience23 and young people have been found to develop their social skills and foster new relationships both with their peers and accompanying adults25. The impact of which is often sustained back in school or other settings. The integration of residential experiences25 and indeed all outdoor learning experiences back into the school setting is seen as key in maximising learning impact and getting the most value for learning from these experiences. This is when the learning is embedded and sustained and in fact a majority of schools that sit at the top of the current accountability framework and success measures use outdoor and residential programmes ‘as an important and valuable part of the education they provide’26.


How can you plan to get the best from outdoor learning experiences?

The key to all successful school visits is good planning in good time. So what does this look like?

  1. Be clear about what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it.

Knowing how the visit will benefit young people and support the curriculum and ethos of a school is key starting point and we know that with a clear focus in mind visits will be well run. Consider a range of locations that could satisfy the aims of the visit, consider the local as well as the distant. This will, of course, have an influence on cost and, potentially, the suitability of the visit for the age and needs of the group.

Selecting the appropriate location or visit provider will be part of the initial planning and referencing the Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC) Quality Badge website will identify a range of providers who have undergone an external assessment of their offer, operation and facilities. If undertaking ‘adventurous activities’ referencing the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority (AALA) website for providers who have been inspected may be appropriate. It will also be useful to discuss the visit at an early stage with the Educational Visits Coordinator (EVC), in school, and an initial outline of the visit may be needed to secure permission from the Senior Management Team to develop the planning.

It is always good practice to be assessing the potential risks at an early stage, balancing these with the benefits. Most schools will have access to generic risk assessments that are a good guide in the planning process and are often drawn up on the back of years of visit planning. After all Amanda Speilman made it clear in an interview last summer that ‘an over-cautious culture has developed in our schools, one that too often tries to wrap children in cotton wool’ and that such a ‘culture deprives children of rewarding experiences, of the opportunity to develop resilience and grit, and which makes it hard for them to learn to cope with normal everyday risk’.

‘I want Ofsted to make sure that schools are properly focusing on pupil safety, but that it doesn’t come at the expense of opportunities to broaden and enrich young minds’ Amanda Speilman (2017)

  1. The Staff team

At the end of the day it will be the decisions taken by the staff team out on the visit that will ensure its success. This will be informed by all the pre-planning but will, more than anything else, be down to staff competence. Make sure that you are confident about managing staff, young people and the activities you are undertaking in the environment you are delivering them. Also ensure you have enough staff to effectively supervise the young people during the visit and while they are undertaking any activities.

Are assisting staff competent and sufficiently confident? It will be really important to brief accompanying staff thoroughly so that they understand their role during the visit and the needs of the young people and each other. Notes of such meetings further enhance your risk management process.

  1. The Activities

The planned activities should all be appropriate to the needs of the group and the aims of the visit. Plan through some alternatives if planned activities have to be cancelled due to bad weather or illness, for example. Where visit staff are leading activities are they competent to do so and where any external staff are being used ensure they are also competent and contracted to lead activities. Where external providers are being used be clear about where responsibilities for activities begin and end.

  1. The Group

It will be important that when appropriate parents and carers have given informed consent about the visit and the activities being undertaken. Good guidance on consent can be found within the Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel website. Alongside such consent it will be important that up to date emergency contact details are available for parents and carers and that medical information; dietary requirements and special needs are shared with visit staff and external providers, when appropriate.

According to the research undertaken by Learning Away, the most effective residentials25 are those that engage young people in the planning process. This can equally be applied to any outdoor learning. At the very least young people should have a briefing and information on the visit and an understanding of the learning outcomes.

It is also worth planning in review and reflection time, especially during residential visits as this will reinforce learning around personal development and help embed learning back as school.

  1. The Environment

The most effective way of planning for environmental factors is to undertake a pre-visit, this is really essential and will inform the risk management process further. Issues around accessibility, safety and safeguarding can be assessed. Discussions with providers will be valuable at this stage. Such pre-visits will also inform the level of first aid cover required; how any remote supervision can be effectively managed; how transport can be best organised and managed during the visit and the layout of visit sites and any accommodation being used, not least the location of toilets and the inevitable shop experience!

  1. …finally. How was it for you?

Effectively evaluating the visit is often a weak link in the process. It can be evaluated by the leader and supporting staff as well as the young people. For residentials, evaluation can happen during the experience within review sessions. Evaluation will inform future visits and assess the impact, something that can be useful for making the case for future visits or expanding the experiences for young people.

To assist with the evaluation process and help assess whether you are delivering high quality outdoor learning throughout the school the Outdoor Council produced ‘High Quality Outdoor Learning’ in 2015. The documents can be downloaded from their website.

Of course the real value will come through embedding the learning.

‘Many teacher argue that an effective school trip is one that is embedded in the learning of children for weeks – if not months – after it takes place.

“For example, we once began the topic of animation with a visit to the Bristol Science centre. It provided an excellent inspiration for the children and enabled teachers to constantly refer back to a trip and learning experience the children had had” 26 Jamie Sullivan, Stoke Hill Junior School Devon.


Useful websites for school visit planning:



  1. Gilchrist, M. and Emmerson, C. (2016) Transforming outdoor learning in schools: lessons from the Natural Connections Project. Plymouth University
  2. Maynard, T and Waters, J (2007) Learning in the outdoor environment: a missed opportunity? Early Years An International journal of Research and Development, 27:, 255-256
  3. Allen, J; McKenna, J; Robinson M (2008) Building student resilience through first-year Outdoor Adventure residential experience in higher education, ALT Journal Number 4
  4. Gill, T (2010) Nothing Ventured …Balancing risks and benefits in the outdoors. English Outdoor Council, p22.
  5. DEFRA (2018) 25 Year Environment Plan, p75
  6. Moss, S (2012) Natural Childhood, National Trust
  7. Edmunds, S (2017) Building self-esteem and wellbeing through physical activity, Ucando-it.
  8. Lovell, R (2106) Links between natural environments and physical activity: evidence briefing, Natural England Access to Evidence Information Note EIN019, Natural England
  9. Faber T A, Kuo F E. (2011) Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD? Evidence from Children's Play Settings, University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign, USA
  10. Malone, K and Waite, S ((2106) Student Outcomes and Natural Schooling. Plymouth: Plymouth University.
  11. Lovell, R (2106) Links between natural environments and learning: evidence briefing, Natural England Access to Evidence Information Note EIN017, Natural England
  12. Malone, K and Waite, S ((2106) Student Outcomes and Natural Schooling. Plymouth: Plymouth University.
  13. Richardson, M et al (2106) The Impact of Children’s Connection to Nature: A Report for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
  14. Torgerson, D and Torgerson, C:  Co-authors: Ainsworth, H; Buckley,H;  Heaps,C;  Hewitt C: Mitchell, N. (2104) Improving Writing Quality  - Evaluation Report and Executive Summary, Education Endowment Foundation.
  16. Allen, J; McKenna J; Hind K (2012) Brian resilience: Shedding light into the back box of adventure processes, Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 16 (1), 3-14.
  17. Dillon, J (2011) Understanding the diverse benefits of learning in the natural environments. King’s College London.
  18. Paterson, C. Tyler, R and Lexmond, J. (2104) Character and Resilience Manifesto. The all party parliamentary group on social mobility.
  19. Cullinane, C and Montacute, M (2017) Life Lessons: Improving essential life skills for young people. The Sutton Trust.
  20. NatCen Social Research and the National Children’s Bureau Research and Policy Team (2107) Developing character skills in schools, DfE
  21. Birdwell, J; Ralph, S and Reynolds, L (2015) Character Nation: A Demos report with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. DEMOS
  22. Malone, K and Waite, S ((2106) Student Outcomes and Natural Schooling. Plymouth: Plymouth University.
  23. Williams, R (2012) Woven into the fabric of experience: residential adventure education and complexity. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning
  24. Carne, P and Sian, W (2017) Brilliant Residentials and their impact on young people: Making the case for high quality residential learning, Learning Away
  25. Kendall, S and Rodger (2105) Evaluation of Learning Away: Final Report, York Consulting LLP
  26. Kerwin Nye, A and Niman, T (2018) Work on the Wild Side: Outdoor Learning and Schools, NotDeadFish
  27. TES (2017-18) Guide to school trips

2 thoughts on “Outdoor Learning – Providing a natural balance to learning indoor

  1. Nigel stannett


    There’s some really good points here, but you start with “Outdoor Learning… it’s a way of teaching”, then end it with “how to plan a good school visit”. Having worked at an outdoor activities residential centre, I know the positive impact that local and residential visits have on young people, but I feel they only play a part in what Outdoor Learning should be for schools and young people, and I think you’ve missed a golden opportunity to talk more about school based Outdoor Learning, especially when you start talking about how good regular contact with green spaces is.

    For me, school visits are not regular and can be exclusive due to costs. I believe Outdoor Learning has to start with schools integrating it into their curriculum. To do this effectively means they need to:
    *plan their curriculums with the outdoors, especially the seasons, as the skeleton which all else fits to
    *develop their grounds to be engaging natural teaching resources
    *train staff to be confident teaching outdoors, including managing groups when there are no walls and using natural props rather than downloaded ones.

    As your first sentence noted, OL isn’t a subject or topic, but from my experience many schools and school staff think it is, and for all the good Forest School does, I feel it doesn’t help with this perception, (many schools feel they tick the OL box if they do Forest School). This needs to change. Outdoor Learning should be more than a trip once a year, or a session once a week for 6 weeks, or even a full day. Just a quick 15 minutes outside can be fantastic, to help engage pupils on the current topic or problem and then head back in the classroom to work on it further. With careful planning of the curriculum, I believe nearly all subjects and topics can have some element of OL in them, at all key stages. (Though I have to admit Oliver Twist did stump me for a bit!)

    Once this base level of OL has been established in a school, (including Forest School with its specific focus), I feel it will then be enriched by local and residential visits even further. The visits should be the pinnacle of OL, but there’s so much more to it than that, and organisations should be focusing on this a lot more.

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