In praise of learning outdoors

Just a few steps away from our classroom is a very rich and varied resource which can make the curriculum come alive and completely alter the learning experiences we provide for young people.

– Mary Carron

Mary Carron, Principal, Rathfarnham Educate Together National School

My first teaching job was in a small rural school in Co. Fermanagh. When we went from four to five teachers, I became the proud inhabitant of a brand new prefab classroom. It was state-of-the-art at the time but there was one major drawback: when the weather warmed up the room became stifling. Luckily we were situated on a lovely patch of green in leafy Fermanagh, so as soon as temperatures rose we moved to the extension – our outdoor classroom!

I have great memories of lessons taught there: circle times with eyes closed listening to the sounds of nature, science classes when we discovered all the little creatures who shared our patch, art lessons sketching the local village, P.E., history (we once buried a time capsule!), discovering maths all around us. In fact, almost any lesson that could be delivered indoors could be delivered outdoors too.

Benefits of teaching outdoors proven by research  

Some time later in my career, I discovered a movement devoted to the development of outdoor classrooms because of the benefits for children of learning in this way. Research has come up with many compelling reasons for teaching outdoors as often as possible.

The ‘Learning Outside the Classroom’ Manifesto, published by DfES UK, claims strong evidence that ‘good quality learning outside the classroom adds much value to classroom learning’.

The many benefits attributed to learning outside the classroom include:

  • It improves academic achievement
  • It provides a bridge to higher order learning
  • It makes learning more engaging and relevant
  • It nurtures creativity
  • It reduces behaviour problems and improves attendance
  • It stimulates, inspires and improves motivation
  • It improves young people’s attitudes to learning.

Remarkable claims indeed!

Proponents of outdoor classrooms do not see them as alternatives to indoor classrooms, and in a climate like ours they could never be so, but they do believe that outdoor classrooms can reinforce and enrich traditional learning.

Research has come up with many compelling reasons for teaching outdoors as often as possible.

According to a study by Maynard and Waters, 2007, a main advantage to the use of an outdoor classroom is that it allows children to move freely in a somewhat open space, and that this movement is one of the most natural and powerful forms of learning for children (p. 257).

Many studies undertaken to examine the benefits of outdoor learning report that both teachers and students claim increases in knowledge gain and understanding of lessons taught in outdoor classrooms, and students also report greater motivation to learn in an outdoor setting. If you ask any teacher whether they would prefer to teach outdoors or indoors on a fine day, you will almost invariably get the same answer – outdoors. In a growing number of schools, the local environment is being used for classes, with science, art, reading, writing, drama, geography, P.E., maths, history – you name it – being taught to some degree outdoors. With or without knowledge of the research, teachers’ natural instinct is to teach where children learn best.

Outdoor classrooms can reinforce and enrich traditional learning.

Many schools are fortunate enough to have good outside space or access to a rich outdoor environment nearby.  There is a whole world waiting to be explored beyond the school walls. With some thoughtful planning, collaboration and sharing of ideas among staff, parents and pupils, a bit of time commitment and the necessary resources, schools can capitalise on the space they have and utilise it to its full potential so that it becomes a space for learning, for exploration, for being with nature, for caring for our environment and providing learning experiences that are child-centred and creative.

What do we mean by learning outside the classroom?

Learning outside the classroom focuses more on how a school deliberately chooses and uses its own outdoor environment to enhance learning. When we move lessons outside the classroom, we need to ask ‘Can we actually enrich the curriculum when we teach and learn outdoors?’

Learning outdoors has been part of Irish education for as long as we can remember. Who doesn’t recall the once-a-term ‘nature walk’ to replenish the nature table! Environment–based learning is one of the ‘defining features’of the 1999 revised curriculum, which states that “a rich experience of different aspects of the curriculum outside the classroom adds enormously to the relevance and effectiveness of children’s learning”(Primary School Curriculum Introduction, 1999, p.15).

But how many teachers really value outdoor learning? That may be difficult to quantify. There are compelling reasons why we should plan to teach and learn outdoors, but no real imperative to do this in any sort of planned way.

Sue Waite, co-author of a report on outdoor learning by Plymouth University UK, suggests that while there is a significant body of evidence to support outdoor learning, the emphasis on academic attainment in schools puts pressure on teachers to stay in the classroom. This “means that children are missing out on so many experiences that will benefit them throughout their lives”. In the report, Ms Waite suggests that linking outdoor activities to learning outcomes would allow it to become part of the curriculum so there would be no need to find extra time for outdoor learning.

Outdoors supports learning right across the curriculum

We would probably all agree that the child who studies a selection of mini-beasts in their own natural habitat will learn more about them than studying these creatures in a book, or that taking a bark rubbing from an actual tree will help identify the tree more easily that seeing its picture on a poster in the classroom. But can teachers use the outdoors to support learning right across the curriculum?

What about children who are able to spread their percussion instruments out on the playground and make plenty of sound. Will they have a more enriching learning experience than those who have to stay in their traditional classroom seating environment and curtail their sound because of the class next door? What about doing Maths outdoors? Don’t we have a ready-made environment in which to estimate, measure, investigate, problem solve, survey, record and communicate? Can we find an outside space to dance, move to music, act? What about using our school buildings and environs to learn about environmental issues such as energy use, litter and waste, as part of active citizenship?All of these curriculum subjects, and more, offer so many opportunities to take learning outdoors and use places other than the classroom for teaching and learning.

To quote the Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto again, “Learning outside the classroom is not an end in itself, rather, we see it as a vehicle to develop the capacity to learn”.

“I love learning outside”

The research indicates that there are indeed convincing arguments for taking learning outdoors, for taking advantage of the rich resource on the doorstep of every school or going slightly further afield to the local environment – neighbourhood, village, park or local historical site. Just a few steps away from our classroom is a very rich and varied resource which can make the curriculum come alive and completely alter the learning experiences that we provide for young people. Yet, despite all the research and powerful arguments for taking learning outdoors, my greatest advocate in my support for this way of learning comes from a ten year old girl with dyslexia, who recently said, “I love learning outside; I just remember things better when I learn them outside”.

I never teach my pupils, I only provide the conditions in which they can learn – Albert Einstein, 1879-1955

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