Linking Outdoor learning to the ICT curriculum.

This article has been written by Ian Tindal. Ian is based in Cornwall and has been working in HE for 17 years initially for The Ultralab and more recently for Anglia Ruskin University. Currently his main work focus is designing and facilitating online work based learning including undergraduate courses that meet the needs of aspiring teachers and other professionals and postgraduate courses for educational leaders. He is a school governor and has previously worked as a KS 2 teacher. His interest in school based learning continues and is the focus of his professional doctorate studies which explores the use of portable technologies for learning outside the classroom. He enjoys spending time in the mountains and the sea, is a keen gardener, storyteller and musician. You can find out more via two blogs, and on Twitter @iantindal

Many teachers I have spoken to over the years say they have had difficulty convincing senior management that outdoor learning of the Forest School kind is valuable and worth investing in, although there does seem to be increasing momentum towards wider acceptance more recently. There is increasing research based evidence of the value of learning, or just being outdoors, for both children and adults. This is coming from clinical, physiological, psychological and pedagogical research and in many countries new initiatives are emerging to address this. At the at the Bristol Daily Dose of Nature conference in March 2015 Richard Louv spoke about the recent initiative in the USA ‘Every Kid in a Park’. The cost of traveling to national parks is a huge issue in the states and the initiative involves private enterprise in an attempt to alleviate the problem.

Such moves are an indication of how seriously the need to reconnect with nature is being taken. There is also evidence of the extent to which children spend time using technologies. Professor Marcus Grant presenting at the same conference mentioned that it is thought that children in the USA spend on average 54 hours per week connecting with technologies. This might seem startling initially and conjure images of children tapping away in isolation in their rooms or glued to a computer in a classroom, however some of the time will be spent using portable technologies and some of this is at times such as when involved in outdoor activities or playing in parks in the evenings.

My research is concerned with how we can make links between the natural and technological worlds and how using portable technologies to explore or record outdoor activities might encourage children to reconnect with nature. I am also an advocate of the pure Forest Schools approach where technologies are usually limited to tools such as those needed for wood cutting or shelter making. I think there is an argument for both separation of technology use from outdoors and for integration of it into outdoor learning.


The many citizen science Apps are a great way of giving even quite young children the opportunity to contribute to real scientific research. I was always connected to nature but back in 1970 in my final primary school year a student teacher brought in some info about a lichen survey, I spend two weeks recording lichens on paper then the data was sent off to real scientists. I remain convinced that was the seed that started me on the journey to gaining a Geology Degree. Using citizen science apps and explaining that the records go to real scientists has recently inspired my own children and their peers in school; they are very much aware of the purpose and importance of their actions.

There are many other outdoor uses of portable device apps, GPS tracking and QR codes can be useful for creating outdoor nature trails, geocache hunts or digital orienteering. Photo or video capture can place child as reporter, musician or artist capturing their muddy art, den building, fireside scenes, woodland music etc. Sharing what they have captured in PowerPoint or on social media can be useful for developing understanding of issues around digital literacy, internet safety and information technology. The quality of the output can instil pride.

These critters are typical Forest School Art and look great in a photo.


They were made by my 10 year old for a stop motion animation he wanted to do. He used a Nikon P600 linked to an iPhone via Wi-Fi, he took 128 stills, moving things a little at a time for every shot. He then compiled them in iPhoto to make the animation. It is far from perfect but he was very proud of it and demonstrated some good self-assessment / problem solving so he knows how to do it better next time. The final animation is here.

Csikszentmihalyi suggested that getting the right balance between skills and challenge can provoke a state of flow, where a sense of purpose and of timelessness is experienced, he describes this as an optimal learning state. It was also suggested that getting the learning design or balance wrong can lead to boredom, or increased anxiety and consequent disengagement from the task.

Zone of Optimal Learning.  After Csikszentmihalyi (1991)

Zone of Optimal Learning.  After Csikszentmihalyi (1991)

Despite the best efforts to present indoor learning as exciting and achievable, children confined for long hours in the classroom will often experience anxiety or boredom. Even a 20 minute session outdoors can provide a welcome change and reduce anxiety or alleviate boredom as indicated by the vectors on the diagram. Prior to making the forest critters discussed above my son had been bored and wandering about what to do. All I did was give him a couple of pinecones and the idea of making them into critters and he set off on his own outdoor learning adventure. It was his idea to do the animation, he had watched a Fast Show clip “Just a tiny amount” about an animation years ago and had always wanted to try it himself.

Linking outdoor activities to the elements of the new IT curriculum can be a good way of legitimising outdoor learning.



Identify the elements needed to carry out an outdoor activity. Depending on the age group either discuss with the children as a class or set them off on individual or collaborative deconstruction. The steps can be recorded on digital devices or paper or assembled by the teacher on an IWB visible to all. It is not important to get the elements into the correct order at the start. There are many activities that can be used, for example; building and lighting a fire, creating and navigating a trail, designing then creating and photographing a woodland creature, building a den or woodland kitchen.


An algorithm is a logical sequence of instructions. Ask children to arrange the deconstructed elements in sequence to create a plan or ‘recipe’ they can follow. This seems to be a great way of developing systematic thinking and understanding of logic.

First stage debugging – applying logical reasoning to detect errors.

Ask children to tell each other about their aim and the algorithm they developed to achieve it. Encourage them to explain their reasoning, identify potential problems and suggest solutions.

Second stage debugging – real world testing.

In the outdoor setting the children test their plans in the real world. Again they should be looking for errors and working out how to improve the plan. Reviewing and improving the original plan during, or closely after, the event is a good way of embedding the learning and making further links such as between a ‘plan for human activity’ and a ‘code for a computer’.

An example – Building and lighting a fire safely


On separate strips of paper print or write the decomposed components below or start from scratch asking the children to identify the components themselves. Give one to each of 10 children and ask them to line up in the order of the numbers then show their strips to the others.

1 Safety equipment.

2 Locate a safe space.

3 Light the fire.

4 Gather small sticks.

5 Cut logs.

6 Gather larger sticks and logs.

7 gather kindling material.

8 Find something to light the fire with.

9 Find a hatchet, saw or other tools to cut fuel.

10 Build the fire.


The children can be rearranged so the elements are in a logical sequence.

Adding detail.

By adding instructions to the logical sequence they become a sequencing algorithm.

1 Prepare safety equipment – bandages, antiseptic, fire-blanket and water…

2 Locate a safe space – clear ground, no overhanging branches, sheltered from wind…


First stage debugging.

Debugging the algorithm via thinking or discussion might lead to noticing additional components such as; that material to be burned needs to be dry, an adult should be on stand-by, clothing should not be easily flammable, we need something to cook. Work on creating a complete set of instructions before field testing in the real world.

Second stage debugging.

Children should take photographs or make drawings of each step, these can then be added to the original instruction text to provide an illustrated version in a PowerPoint record or on a school blog to meet the Information Technology strand of the curriculum.

Other computing terms that can be applied are:

Inputs – the things that go to make the fire.

Outputs – the heat, light and smoke generated by the fire.

Variables – the kinds of fuel, dry, wet, quantity, wind.

Selection – if dry then it lights easily, if wet then it is difficult to light.

Control – the lighting of the fire and the quenching of the fire. Topping up the fuel, cooking.

To create a detailed program requires a logically structured language that turns the algorithm into a set of instructions that caters for inputs, outputs, variables, selections and control. A flow diagram can work very well with older children to move from algorithm towards a more detailed program.

Further work on the algorithm can focus on the concept that a computer or a group of people can make completion of a task more efficient by working on several tasks at once.

The tasks below are in a logical order for one person who builds the fire after the components are assembled:

Gather kindling material including paper, leaves, moss etc.

Gather small sticks.

Gather larger sticks and logs.

Find a hatchet, saw or other tools to cut fuel.

Cut logs.

Build the fire.

For a group approach one person might take the role of building the fire with others tasked with organizing tools or bringing back specific kinds of fuel. The algorithm now needs to be annotated with names against tasks to organize the multitasking. The process ‘Build the fire.’ evolves as materials are accumulated. With larger groups other tasks might be identified as being better if organized as a parallel self-contained algorithm. A group could be tasked with safety, another with preparing and cooking food, another with building temporary shelter from sun wind or rain.

Children should be in problem solving or debugging mode when first running through the plan in the outdoors and have a means of recording any adaptations.

 A blindfold trail activity.

These are usually designed to work on communications skills and developing trust with helpers holding the hands of a blindfolded child and helping them navigate the trail. To link closer with the IT curriculum children could plan the activity in a similar way to the fire one above. They then work collaboratively on site devising and laying out a trail using a string or other simple marker so they can see it. From that point they need to develop a sequence of instructions that is the code for the trail.

A trail code might look something like the instructions below:

Forward two steps

45 degree left turn

Forward three

90 degree right turn

Forward 4

Duck to avoid branch

Forward 5…


It is likely that after a few children have tried out following the sequence they might find that for humans it needs to be adaptable for different step lengths. Putting children in role-play as a robot that is verbally programmed helps make the distinction between algorithm and program. With some prompting they might realize that a robot would always have the same step length although different sized robots would need different code.

Such real world activities develop transferable skills that can be used in the more usual on-screen / robot device related coding activities. Learning about computer coding is often perceived as fairly mundane or even pointless for young children, I hope the above gives you some ideas as to how linking this to the imaginative and creative world of outdoor learning activities can be beneficial to staff and children. I have blogged elsewhere about another presentation at the Bristol event that shows clear links between stress and non-communicable diseases. Given teaching is a profession known for provoking high levels of stress I think this is a presentation any teacher could benefit from reading. It is not only beneficial for children to spend time outdoors it benefits staff by reducing their own stress levels as well.


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