Blog post written by Dr Helen Bilton, Professor of Outdoor Play and Learning, University of Reading
Helen Bilton explains the thinking behind a a free online course developed by the University of Reading that aims to empower children to look after the planet.
Climate change is one of the biggest issues facing the planet. As educators, many of us want to highlight this to the children we teach and encourage them to take action but it can feel overwhelming: not knowing what to do or where to start.
With this in mind, we at the University of Reading have developed a short online course to help schools and settings incorporate learning about the climate into their teaching and empower children to make changes through sustainability actions.
We didn’t set out to provide a roadmap for climate education, (every school and setting is different!) instead, we’ve created a space for teachers to discuss examples from case study schools and nurseries and share their own experiences and ideas. In this way we hope that the people who take the course can contribute to the discussion, so everyone finishes with a better understanding and with a sense of hope.
Taking approximately six hours of flexible study, this unique course explores teaching climate and sustainability through an outdoor learning approach. This is because we believe that:
To care for the world, you need to love it. To love it, you need to be a part of it. To be a part of it, you need to spend lots of time out in it. In this way you can appreciate the world’s power and fragility. Children must be allowed to learn in the outdoor environment.
Participants will explore the importance of being outside for inspiring children and how to lead high-quality learning experiences outdoors. By watching videos of children learning outside at our partner school in Wokingham, participants will see why teaching outdoors enables children to engage with climate and sustainability academically, emotionally and physically. As the children we interviewed for the course highlight:
‘You’re able to touch the trees. And in books you’re not able to, you’re just looking at pictures’.
In the first part, we discuss both the benefits and the challenges of outdoor learning, before exploring ideas for activities on seasons, climate change and contributing to scientific investigations. We reflect on the power of the individual – how small changes can make a difference and suggest educators keep a record of their ideas and plans as they develop.
In the second part, we consider how to empower children to discover and care for the environment as well as share ideas for exploring sustainability issues with them – focusing on the food production system and waste – through outdoor activities. The course finishes with a plan for how to trial ideas with the children.
The partnership school caters for children from four to 11 years of age, and much of the work of the school comes from the wonderful influences and knowledge of nursery/early years education. For example the young children have a daily weather watcher game so they learn how to prepare to be outdoors in all weather.
And while I was there, children created ice mobiles and moved the bark chippings to cover a piece of ground that keeps getting waterlogged. As one early years teacher at the school explains:
‘Young children are a lot more aware than a lot of adults about climate change and about the things that are happening in the world around us. They offer a real unique perspective and I think teaching children from a young age allows them to take a real ownership of knowledge of climate change for their whole lives, and then they can go on and educate the people around them as well.’
The school is not saying they have all the answers, they simply take us on their journey, which is by no means complete, and they are looking forward to hearing the ideas of those who take the course to help them develop further.
Currently the Department for Education (DfE) is finalising its ‘Sustainability & Climate Change A draft strategy for the education & children’s services systems’, in which schools and setting will play a central role in educating about climate and sustainability.
The DfE is aiming to create a virtual National Education Nature Park (NENP) of all outdoor spaces in educational institutions, to improve biodiversity and set up a Climate Leaders Award to allow recognition of education providers and children developing their connection with nature.
While a national strategy demonstrates the importance of climate education, this course highlights that teachers can make a difference as individuals by doing just one thing well.
By taking this manageable approach, participants will feel more comfortable teaching about climate and sustainability outdoors and we hope in the process, also benefit in terms of their wellbeing and enjoyment of their job.
The course is open for anyone to join for free here