As a mum who is approaching, with some trepidation, the time to choose a primary school, the paramount question of where learning should take place has never loomed so large in my thoughts. Having a son who loves to be outside, whatever the weather, I have concerns about any expectations that learning once in school should largely take place indoors.
While access to outside learning is a given in the vast majority of schools, particularly in early years, there’s no doubt that there’s a prevailing presumption, in England at least, that children will do most of their learning indoors. This is reflected in the paucity of references to outdoor learning in the statutory curriculum.
In an age when an appreciation for the need for an evidence-informed approach to education is extending more widely beyond higher education, it’s surprising that indoor education enjoys such overwhelming prominence. Dr Helen Bilton, Associate Professor of Education (Senior Tutor) at the University of Reading, has a special interest in research around outdoor learning, and makes the point that in Wales and Scotland outdoor learning is greatly encouraged.
“Where does it say that we learn more when inside?” Helen asks. “We know what education looks like inside and so we rely on that picture. But where outdoor learning has been researched we know that it has a very positive effect on children and young people.”
Yet even in these times, in a system with such focus on the passing of tests, when children and young people are under incredible pressures, and struggling with burdens of self-harm, eating disorders, and depression, it’s fair to say that the majority of schools are not prioritising outside learning.
“The Education Select Committee in 2010 said that there is evidence that outdoor education has an impact. It works,” explains Helen. “But like everything else in education, there is no single correct way of going about outdoor education. People are complex, so we mustn’t be seduced into thinking there can ever be a single best way of doing anything in school.”
So what are some of the benefits we can hope to see in children and young people if we give them the chance to take their learning beyond the classroom walls? Helen highlights the following:
…from the effects of being more physically active, to the now well documented benefits to mental health of spending time in and around nature
…agility, balance and coordination all get a workout from active outdoor learning
…from being physically active comes learning and understanding about your body and what it can do and achieve. A growth in self-esteem and self-worth is a common outcome
…overcoming the elements is an important dimension in outdoor learning. Harnessing the weather and developing the ability to keep going and beat any diversity can often be translated into the ability to keep going when learning gets tough in the classroom.
The potential for learning outdoors is clearly great, but how many children spend a significant proportion of their school day in the open air? Can we grasp the literature on the issue and transform the way we work in schools even further, or do we need stronger encouragement at a policy level before schools, in England at least, feel less constrained?
Find out more
– Helen Bilton’s book, Playing Outside: Activities, Ideas and Inspiration for the Early Years, 2nd edition, was published by Routledge in 2014
– A list of Helen Bilton’s research papers and books can be found here
– Woodland Trust Nature Detectives site is packed with activities for children aged 0-6+.