How did we end up here? At what point did we come to assume that school, lessons and learning belonged exclusively in a classroom, measurable with grades? Arguably the most influential teacher of all, Socrates engaged in discussion with his students in the open air. If it was good enough for him, then it’s good enough for me. It’s time to have a rethink about our classroom environments and ensure that children make full use of whatever outside space is available.
After all, what are we talking about when we talk about education? 2020 has brought a focus on public examinations, children falling behind in Maths and English and schools’ capacity to engage in remote learning and online teaching – demanding much from teachers and pupils alike. Vital as these are, they are not the whole picture. More than just a question of wellbeing and the undoubted benefits of fresh air, we must consider what children nowadays need to learn.
The march of mechanisation and artificial intelligence is undeniable, yet our insistence on a model of education which prioritises how much a child can memorise and replicate on demand, alone, in silence and under time pressure, holds the upper hand in a denial of progress worthy of King Canute. The World Economic Forum, that NGO which put Davos on the map, has devised a compelling list of skills and attributes which will be most valuable as we enter what they call the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The skills identified – problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management and coordinating with others – are best developed outdoors.
I am a huge advocate for Forest School. Increasingly commonplace among preschool settings, still visible in Key Stage 1, it is a rare school which continues Forest lessons after children turn eight years-old. Yet think about the values it espouses: developing confidence, self-esteem, social skills, supported risk-taking and respect for our flora and fauna. Trained Forest teachers can use an array of tools that often make me gulp, and then smile: fire, hammers, whittling knives, bow saws. Children can get outside to learn in all weathers, and there’s simply nothing better than seeing a class returning from lessons in the rain, boys and girls covered in coats and waterproof trousers, sploshing in wellies, shining eyes and toothpaste smiles.
At my own school, we have Forest School for all ages. We are lucky to have trees and a small woodland is our playground, as well as sports pitches where children can enjoy games and PE lessons. Forest and sports lessons represent ten percent of children’s school time. Not enough. In recent years we have sought to embed outdoor learning throughout school.
When I think back to my own school days, I was delighted whenever a teacher took a class outside, though sadly the overriding memory is of presuming that lessons al fresco were not going to involve any kind of serious work or application. That kind of thing happened in classrooms, after all.
The school playing field might be the best place for football, handstands and relaxing, but it is also ideal for a full range of academic pursuits, be that composing a poem about autumn as the leaves fall around us, breaking twigs to see fractions in the most literal sense, or bringing Science to life in the pursuit of minibeasts. The outdoors makes the most wonderful canvas for Art and a child will never forget a historical battle if they take part in a re-enactment (especially if it includes some dressing up!).
To ensure that outdoor learning becomes systemic and normal, we have started to give over whole days to individual year groups as ‘empty classroom days’. Come rain or shine, pupils spend the whole school day – save loo trips! – outside, following their normal curriculum and ensuring that lunch includes toasted marshmallows. Teachers have all been fantastic at rising to the challenge of teaching everything in the wild, with particular kudos to the ICT teacher! This has led to further developments, including two colonies of bees. The children learn practically how the hive operates, and how to study wild animals while also protecting them. We have included Teamwork and Leadership Hubs, where children can work in teams, learn to speak up and also to listen, solving problems together.
It is important to underline what a commitment to outdoor learning is not. It is not a dereliction of duty towards children’s measurable outcomes, nor saying that the school lacks academic ambition. These innovations at my own school have coincided with the best academic data that the school has on record. Nor is outdoor learning a whimsical luxury, or reserved only for those in rural settings. My inspiration came from a primary school in a Surrey town centre, and its passionate headteacher.
A last word goes to the children. When I asked them what they liked about outdoor learning, they spoke of reducing anxiety, of burning off energy so they could concentrate better in class. One said that she enjoyed learning acute and obtuse angles outside, but mainly she liked that it made her happy. Ultimately, they reckoned that being outside is fun, and school should be fun for children. The ancient Latin word for school is ludus – the same as the word for a game. What did the Greeks and Romans do for us? They showed us that good old ways can be a breath of fresh air.