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Andy Swain: "It is difficult to ignore the role that outdoor learning could and should play in UK schooling"

The future of outdoor learning

Opportunities to take learning out of the classroom are untapped in England, says Andy Swain

Posted by Stephanie Broad | August 16, 2015 | Teaching

Outdoor learning is increasingly catching on across the UK, but there is still a long way to go before this is utilised in full. Scotland is in many ways leading the rest of the country when it comes to taking learning outside of the classroom, but even so there is much that could still be done.

According to one recent study from Scottish National Heritage, outdoor learning has very definite support from teachers as a way to expand the opportunities that a lesson can offer. The outdoors provides a stimulating learning environment, as well as allowing teachers to employ more active, collaborative, and engaging methods.

Back in the 2010-2011 school year, Scotland introduced its Curriculum for Excellence, which aimed to help students be “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.” Part of the Curriculum for Excellence was an increased focus on outdoor learning, and since its introduction Scotland has certainly seen an increase in schools taking lessons beyond the bricks and mortar of their own schools. Indeed, throughout the UK – though especially in Scotland – outdoor teaching is certainly being used a lot more than it was a decade ago.

Outdoor learning is unevenly spread. This is partly down to the divide between Scotland and the rest of the UK. In England, there is no intervention to provide outdoor learning opportunities at all before the age of 16. However, this is not the only way in which outdoor teaching is spread unevenly, and even Scotland faces challenges in applying its provisions across the board. Schools located in deprived areas, for example, face far greater challenges than their counterparts elsewhere when it comes to giving their pupils the opportunity to take part in lessons outside the classroom. Furthermore, taking lessons into the outdoors can be challenging, as there are a number of things that need to be in place. It requires not just physical opportunities but the support of teachers, parents, and school management. It also requires funding, possible additional training for teachers, and supportive policies at school, local authority and national levels.

The outdoors provides a stimulating learning environment, as well as allowing teachers to employ more active, collaborative, and engaging methods

However, the rewards associated with learning outside the classroom are at least as great as the challenges. Research has provided compelling evidence of the substantial benefits associated with taking lessons outdoors. It provides a relaxed and pleasant environment that can help students feel at ease with subjects they otherwise find imposing. It also stimulates the mind and the senses, aiding learning and thought processes, while providing students with a sense of freedom. The outside world also opens up a wealth of new practical activities for subjects such as art, the sciences, drama and geography.

With the strength and variety of benefits on offer, it is difficult to ignore the role that outdoor learning could and should play in UK schooling. Relevant parties are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that outdoor learning can form a useful, central part of a school's approach to teaching rather than an optional add-on, and this is a trend that looks set to continue and bring about an uptake in the use of outdoor spaces for teaching.

Andy Swain is Managing Director of SAS Shelters    

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