By | 25/02/2019

Outdoor Learning in Practice

My previous blog highlighted why being outdoors is so good for us, and how it is especially beneficial for young people. Despite this, I often hear many of my peers and fellow educators expressing their frustration at how difficult it is to maximise the hugely beneficial opportunities of using that amazing resource, ‘the outdoors’. I must admit, I do, at times, have a similar sense of frustration at the lack of priority given to developing such a valuable resource that is not only cost effective for schools but has a huge value for learning.

However, having recently taken up the post of Lead Advisor for Academic Resilience for Greenwood Academies Trust, I have been really encouraged by the willingness of our Academies to engage with outdoor learning as a means to add value and purpose to the work undertaken in the classroom.

A rich and broad curriculum

Many of our Academies work hard to ensure that they deliver a rich and broad curriculum and give opportunities for the pupils we work with to experience life beyond their immediate environment. In the recently released draft Inspection Framework by Ofsted, it is pleasing to see that they recognise the importance of enrichment experiences and the value of a diverse and balanced curriculum. It is not all about exams and we have a duty to prepare our young people for the ever changing demands of an increasingly uncertain world.

The role of personal development, character education, and employability are hugely important in how well our young people go on to succeed. Outdoor learning and educational visits bridge the gap between the school environment and the outside world that awaits our young people when they leave us, something explored in Education Scotland’s excellent document ‘Outdoor Learning’. So, how can schools begin to use this wonderful tool, ‘the outdoors’, to help young people in their education and engagement in learning, and prepare them for their eventual independence?

For me, the key to delivering a successful and integrated learning environment is the notion that draws together both work within and outside of the classroom. It’s also important that we make this process as seamless as possible.  For many, to even think about discriminating learning by where it takes place does seem bizarre! A walk around an Early Years setting shows that, at this stage of educational development, we seem to understand that learning opportunities abound all around us, and not just in a classroom. As a geographer the meaning of place is important, however, as an educationalist I am beginning to feel that by worrying about where we teach our pupils may be actually holding us back. Well, this most certainly isn’t the case in Hazel Leys Primary Academy, in Corby.

Outdoor Learning at Hazel Leys Primary Academy

Around one year ago, I was invited by the Principal and Deputy Principal of Hazel Leys Primary Academy to help raise the profile of outdoor learning within the Academy itself. Although located in the heart of Corby, the Academy has a wonderful setting. I was invited to run a number of twilight training courses to introduce ideas that staff could incorporate into their everyday teaching. However, what really made the difference in this Academy was the absolute commitment by the senior staff to introduce more outdoor learning opportunities. It has to be said that this mentality, alongside an engaging and meaningful curriculum really makes a difference in terms of the impact on learning. It is this drive that really makes a difference in terms of impact.

Following my initial twilight sessions, I planned and arranged outdoor sessions which were linked to each year group’s current curriculum themes. During this work, I felt that I could really begin to show what could be done in terms of linking outdoor learning directly to the curriculum and take the training offer beyond the a more traditional –‘Show and Tell’.

As a result, I found myself delivering lessons outside about ‘the Romans’, ‘the Egyptians’, and ‘World War II’ through a range of team building, problem solving and orienteering activities, and later on introducing year one and two to ‘T-Veg’ orienteering. Great fun but exhausting days! The hope was that this would begin to demonstrate how links could be made and almost act as giving permission to ‘go outside’ because it could add value to learning.

The way in which some of the staff have since gone on to develop their own ideas has been incredible, more a testament to their own imagination than any input I may have made.

A great example has been the work of the Year 6 teacher. As she said to me ‘we have been doing the hurricane shelter and exploding model volcanoes that we make for many years. It is only in the last few years though that we have been trying to include more outdoor learning’. It is great how this has now developed as she went on to describe to me:


‘For Design Technology we made model hurricane shelters which were tested against hurricane conditions (a watering can and leaf blower!) The children knew how they would be tested at the start of the project which encouraged them to think carefully about their design and how they would make them as strong as possible. It also gave greater context to the project as a real life situation. We have found, over the years with this project, that siblings who have previously done this are able to give good guidance to their younger peers and brothers/sisters so they clearly remembered what they had learned.’


…and that wasn’t all:


‘Last year we were learning about the heart and our circulatory system. The children drew a heart on the floor in coloured chalk along with the lungs and rest of the body. They used red and blue chalk to understand the concept of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood. They then were able to walk the system to understand the process and to understand the different chambers in the heart and the different blood vessels. This allowed the children greater understanding of the process and they were then able to explain this better in their writing.’

I have to say, this example blew me away. What a great use of scaling up and application to reinforce learning.

Similar work has been developed in reception classes. Here the class teacher outlines their approach to art and the outdoors:

‘Last term we were looking at colour in the outdoor environment. All the children were given a rectangle of colour from a paint chart and had to search for something that was a close match.  We were impressed with how they improved their colour matching over the morning.

In the afternoon, the children mixed their own shade of green and then had to find something natural that was a close match to their shade. They stuck the object next to the shade of green they had created. When we looked at it later and the paint had dried, the match was not as close as it had been. This provoked much talk about why the colour had changed. Some of the children chose to find another object that was a match to the dried colour!’

It has been great fun working with Hazel Leys Primary Academy and I now hope that they will go onto apply for their Council for Learning Outside the Classroom Gold Mark, they certainly deserve it.

Key points for developing learning outdoors

To finish, I have reproduced some key points for developing outdoor learning in schools taken from an excellent article in the Winter Edition of Horizons (Issue 84 Winter 2018/19, published by the Institute of Outdoor Learning), by Jen Ager, who is an Assistant Headteacher at a school in the north of England. This is a really good practical article about a journey a school has taken towards integrating outdoor learning throughout the curriculum. I have adapted her key points to kick-start adventures outside:

  • Take a walk around the school grounds and discuss how they can be used – how many staff have done this?
  • Audit which areas are used and ask why certain areas are not used.
  • Look to include opportunities for outdoor learning during curriculum planning time.
  • Train children to put on coats and be outside in ‘one minute’.
  • Provide CPD and signpost staff to key resources.
  • Sign up to initiatives such as Outdoor Classroom Day and the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom quality mark.
  • Allocate CPD time and staff meetings.
  • Offer peer to peer support within the school.
  • The more you get outside the more you will use it!


So why wouldn’t you? Get outside!