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5 reasons why outdoor learning is a good idea for primary schools

Analysis: outdoor learning is about more than merely taking lessons designed for the classroom outside on a sunny day

One positive outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the surge in interest in connecting more with our local areas and reconnecting with nature and the great outdoors. This is great news for anyone who has been trying to drive outdoor learning in our primary schools.

Simply put, outdoor learning is learning that takes place outdoors rather than in the classroom. Importantly, it promotes a change of location rather than a change of curriculum. Done right, it offers a coherent meshing of classroom and outdoor learning and moves beyond merely taking lessons designed for the classroom outside on a sunny day.

Given some of the perceived barriers to taking learning outside such as managing behaviour, teacher confidence, lack of green space, risk assessment and the (Irish) weather, you might wonder why bother with it. Ultimately, for the reasons given below, it works.

A different learning culture

Free of the confines of the four walls and all the routines that come with them, outdoor learning disrupts the usual cultural expectations for both adults and children. They bring fewer rules and/or routines which means more playful child-initiated learning and egalitarian management of how time is spent.

This was experienced in a research study carried out in DCU where student teachers had the opportunity to plan and facilitate outdoor lessons with primary school children. The student teachers reported feeling under pressure to stick to their plan and running out of time, examples of the normal cultural expectations of classrooms. But they also recognised that this issue was not one for the children and was certainly not holding back their learning. “The relaxed time was highly beneficial in this lesson”, commented one, and was an “opportunity for child-led exploration and learning”.

Engage with the environment

Outdoor learning gives children the opportunity for first hand observation, often the first step in enquiry, and supports the development of children’s knowledge and understanding of their environment through direct engagement. By looking, touching, listening and smelling they can make observations of the world around them, leading to questions and ideas. Such questions and ideas are then an authentic base for child-led investigations and enquiries about how the world works.

Connects children to their communities

Regular visits to the same environments promote knowledge, attachment and connection to place. When children get the opportunity to explore their local environments over time, they appear more connected to the local landscapes and no longer estranged from their local environments. This is particularly important in the context of global citizenship education and the Sustainable Development Goals. Early positive connections with their local communities including the natural environment can be associated with pro-environmental attitudes and values and active citizenship.

Provides real-world contexts

Natural and built environments provide real contexts for children’s learning and such contexts can provide a hook for children’s learning. Whether it is a windowsill planter or a nearby woodland area, a small village or a large city, every place has the potential to provide real life contexts for learning. Such natural hooks into learning are motivating and a rich resource for authentic learning. The buildings, the post boxes, the road signs, street/road markings, hedgerows, bus stops, bins, trees, etc. are all potential resources with a unique learning opportunity.

Supports risky play

Giving children time and space in natural environments can support their risky play. Risky play is adventurous play and includes opportunities for children to test boundaries and to explore risk. Outdoor learning, through Forest School, can provide children with the freedom and opportunities for risky play within a framework of security and safety. This involves a risk-benefit assessment. 

On a final note, we have to come back to the great Irish weather. Early years settings have been leaders in demonstrating how to successfully deal with it – welly boots, waterproof coats and a can-do attitude – though the latter is mostly for the adults. Children certainly don’t have a problem with being out in all weathers.

As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. It needs to become the norm that children are expected to come to school with a raincoat and be allowed to wear or change into welly boots as needed. Some schools are already facilitating this to make sure children get time outside every day. Wellies and rainwear can be donated and reused, which has the double benefit of keeping costs down for families and contributing to the green agenda. Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to consider different ways of supporting learning and teaching. While the focus has naturally been on online delivery, it would be great if outdoor learning became part of the everyday in most of our primary schools.

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