Bringing Outdoor Learning to Life
This article is published in the magazine Wood Wise, Woodland Conservation News, December 2017.
Paula Sinclair is a P5 teacher and the curriculum leader of outdoor learning at St George’s School for Girls, Edinburgh.
Young people of previous generations enjoyed a world of building dens, whittling sticks, building river dams and generally grubbing around the woodland. Yet today’s children are increasingly more likely to attend after school clubs or paid sports classes.
With such busy lives, even those parents who wish to are not always able to take their children exploring in the outdoors and so their youngsters are missing out on the huge benefits that activities like camping, hiking or river dipping can offer. These often free pastimes are falling by the wayside as the uptake of activities with professional coaching or technological screen time increases. Therefore, schools need to maximise the education and development of the whole child by using the outdoors as a tool for learning about nature, to acquire life skills, and as a platform for standard curricular subjects.
Enriching a Scottish school
A quick class survey at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh revealed that, whilst many pupils were adept at activities such as tennis, gymnastics and skiing, there were a few that had never yet climbed a tree, struggled to name three species of butterfly, did not know what a pooh stick was, and had never toasted a marshmallow. Watching footage on YouTube, building a den in Minecraft and offering to find the answers on Google did not count. So, over the last few years, the school has been increasing the environmental awareness and the health and wellbeing of its pupils through outdoor activities and learning. Seeing immediate and life-enriching benefits, outdoor learning has now been embedded into the curriculum.
Connections to nature are being marred by modern day pressures of time, estranged attitude and the advance of technology, and staff at St George’s could see the massive potential of skills and experiences that outdoor learning could offer. Consequently, I set up weekly outdoor sessions with Primary 3 pupils to teach them about the nature and biodiversity in their school grounds through hands-on experiences and investigation.
An immediate impact amongst the pupils was observed in essential life skills such as teamwork, communication, respect, negotiation, resilience, perseverance, confidence, problem solving and independence. Bright eyes, glowing faces and excited grins bore testament to a multitude of other health benefits. Where appropriate, maths, language and topic lessons were taken outdoors too, providing an active and engaging classroom without walls and capitalising on nature’s free, limitless and ever-changing resources. These outdoor activities became eagerly anticipated by both pupils and teachers and the influence of this teaching progressed quickly to the other year groups.
Training with Wild things!
To progress and enrich the school’s outdoor learning programme further, I attended the Woodland Activity Leader Training (WALT) course delivered by Wild things!.
This course run for seven days with continual assessment on the various elements taught throughout the week, culminating in delivery of a 30 minute session on the last day. Participants are either given or get to choose a subject, such as history, maths, physics, confidence building or teamwork to deliver to their fellow participants.
During this session, each participant has the chance to put into practice some of the skills they have learned about group management during the course. Research has consistently shown increased levels of engagement and motivation in outdoor learning activities among individuals that may be challenging in the classroom. The hugely positive effects that outdoor learning gives to all generally make for a smooth session if well planned and prepared.
The WALT course is officially accredited by the General Teaching Council for Scotland and can lead to professional recognition in outdoor learning for Scottish based teachers who complete the course. Topics covered during the WALT course include:
• Tree and plant identification, including traditional uses and edible species
• Bushcraft, including instruction on tool safety and maintenance
• Den building, hammocks and knot tying
• Fire building and cooking
• Animal tracking and minibeasts
• Games and activities
• Top tips for leading a group in the outdoors.
Newly qualified as a woodland activity leader and back at school once more, I set up a bushcraft club and with the support of the management team, purchased a variety of equipment to extend the outdoor learning programme. This included knives, saws, fire steels, hammocks, tarps, para cord and identification charts. In this way, the Primary 5 Ranger Club was founded. The club was an instant success, not only with the pupils but also with
the parents who delighted in hearing the excited chatter about the likes of popcorn making over a ‘leave no trace’ fire, camouflaging in the trees and eating nettles. Due to the demand on the limited spaces, bushcraft skills have also been incorporated into the Primary 5 Camp so that everyone gets the opportunity to take part.
The main outdoor learning curriculum was extended to offer pupils a Level 1 Award in the Natural Connections programme developed by Fife Council. Through this, they venture out onto the Pentland Hills as scientific researchers and along the Water of Leith as conservationists. The school grounds, however, are used as the setting of all regular sessions and St George’s is fortunate to have wild and natural areas on campus. Funds have been raised to develop the extensive grassy spaces over the last few years to complement the programme. A log trail was built and an Indian canoe donated – the source of many an imaginative paddle. A property developer contributed several wooden pallets to create an enormous bug hotel, a local tree surgeon provided lots of large branches to mark out paths and the pupils helped to design and build various plant structures. A large tree platform in the ‘Fantastical Forest’ was completed this year by the environmental education organisation Earth Calling and is the basis for a huge number of creative and imaginative activities, as well as just for climbing and jumping off.
Outdoor learning has become a core part of the curriculum at St George’s and a key aspect of the school’s objectives in nurturing the whole child. The enriching experiences that these activities provide for the pupils equip them for the world with essential life skills that can never be taken away and complement their academic prowess.
There are many resources available to schools and awards that pupils can work towards to inspire, motivate and recognise their achievements. St George’s offers the Natural Connections Award to the Primary 5 pupils, an undertaking of six different elements worked on throughout the year: nature discovery, conservation work, adventure skills, teamwork, mapping and journeying.
Its launch last year was a great success. Every pupil completed the award and learned a great deal along the way, not only about nature and the sustainability of our world, but also about themselves. The full day hike up Scald Law was the highlight for many, providing both physical and mental challenge as entomologists, hydrologists, mycologists, botanists and geologists scoured the hills, equipped suitably for their jobs by the senior school biology department.
Another award scheme that can be used to structure outdoor learning sessions is the RSPB’s Wild Challenges. Pupils at St George’s were delighted to gain bronze, silver and gold awards for the school in quick succession. Many of the younger pupils were also involved in this through their Eco Day of Action, a full day of outdoor activities and workshops for all classes.
There are also many free workshops available for teachers from organisations such as the RSPB, Changeworks and the Scottish SPCA. Their education teams are more than happy to help enthusiasts develop as leaders of outdoor learning, to inspire wild ideas, to enrich the curriculum and maximise the benefits for and impacts on children.
The pupils at St George’s School have certainly gained many skills that they will draw upon throughout their lives. They have also found that there is nothing quite like sitting around a fire, singing songs and enjoying a toasted marshmallow, while the birds chirp overhead, the bugs busy themselves, the wind rustles the leaves of the trees and the sun goes down behind the hills.
A promotional video about outdoor learning at St George’s School can be viewed at:
Wild things! delivers a selection of accredited outdoor learning courses at various locations throughout the UK. It also provides one day courses aimed at teachers, exploring individual aspects of outdoor learning, such as: the world of the minibeast, or creatures of the shore.