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Why it’s not just children that stand to benefit from outdoor learning

Posted on 17 May 2018

A few weeks ago I spent the afternoon with my five-year cousin.

It was a lovely, sunny afternoon so after playing 'makeovers' (who knew the lipstick could also be used as blusher and eyeshadow?), we also popped into the garden for a while where she proudly showed me her fairy garden. It was swish - Tinkerbell would definitely use it as a holiday home.  

We decided to look for worms. I say we…

'There must be one some here somewhere!' she laughed, using her kid-sized trowel to dig up the earth. Eventually, I heard a little scream of delight: 'STACE! WE’VE FOUND ONE!

She gently placed the worm in her palm and started talking to it. We then popped it back and started looking for more creepy crawlies. The questions came thick and fast 'Why do snails have shells?' 'Why do slugs eat leaves?' 'Do all worms live in the mud?'

Five-year-olds can give Jeremy Paxman a run for his money.

Despite the mud in our fingernails and perhaps smelling slightly less fragrant then when we started, it was a fab afternoon. Not only did she learn, but I did too. All hail, Google!

Learning on the job is always much more fun. When I was at university, I learned more about the world of journalism while working in a magazine office than what I could learn from a lecturer.

So why should children be any different?

Putting down pens and putting on wellies

The latest statistics from 'Outdoor Classroom Day' landed my desk a few days ago. The report entitled ‘The impact of outdoor learning and playtime at school – and beyond’ contained the latest findings following interviews with teachers and learning practitioners about the importance they place on outdoor learning for pupils.

A snapshot for the UK found that:

  • 99% of UK teachers surveyed believe that outdoor playtime throughout the school day is critical for children to reach their full potential.
  • 81% of UK teachers want more time to take lessons outside.
  • In the UK, 60% of schoolchildren get less than one hour of playtime; with only 8% getting over 90 minutes.

The report also noted that when UK teachers took lessons outdoors children are more engaged in learning (90%), better able to concentrate (72%) and – most importantly – happier (91%).

When noting what prevented more outdoor learning, in the UK the main reason was the weather at 58%, closely followed by pressures caused by curriculum at 45%.

While the weather statistic may not be the biggest surprise given how unpredictable UK weather can be, there are some nurseries and pre-schools that have taken the sun, rain and snow in their stride. Dandelion Education in Norfolk and The Elves and Fairies Woodland Nursey in Dorset have both been rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted  pride themselves on being outside in all weather and encouraging learning through being 'at one' with nature. The Elves and Fairies Nursery lives by the motto – 'there is no such thing as bad weather - only the wrong clothing'.

More than just letters and numbers

In the Government’s 25-Year Environment Strategy that was released in January 2018, the plan lays emphasis on the importance of outdoor learning and 'encouraging children to be close to nature, both in and outside of school.' One of the actions that the plan offers is the development of a Nature-Friendly Schools programme, focusing in the UK’s most disadvantaged areas. Other actions included supporting the expansion of school outreach activities delivered by community forests and establishing a 'progressive programmes of nature contact' for support schools and Pupil Referral Units.

When this becomes a reality, this will, of course, be positive to the young people that it’s designed to help. It’s a stark reality that children from disadvantaged communities lose out when it comes to access to greenspace and not all children have access to a park or even a garden they can play in. It’s for these children where outdoor school learning would have significant education and development benefits, including positive interaction with peers and teachers.   

The saying that 'not all learning takes place in the classroom' is one that Groundwork wholeheartedly agrees with. Even if for a second we ignore the curriculum, and focus solely on the personal gains that being outdoors offers to us all, the health and wellbeing benefits hold enough weight that we cannot continue to ignore them. Conversations about how we can all improve our personal mental health and wellbeing have been a hot topic this week, thanks to Mental Health Awareness Week. By giving children the opportunities to learn and develop outside confines of a desk, helps to open their minds to new ideas and ways of thinking and clearing their minds.

Not all learning takes place in the classroom

What’s clear from both the 'National Classroom Day' findings and what we already know about the overall benefits of both outdoor learning and simply being outdoors, is that this is something that is important in helping young people develop academically, personally and contributes towards healthy minds and bodies.

The therapeutic role that the outdoors and nature can play to help our mental state and general wellbeing is paramount, both in and outside school gates. In order for schools, individuals and overall communities to thrive, it’s vital that important lessons are learned – both in and outside the classroom. 

Blog post by Stacey Aplin, PR and Communications Officer