Natural Connections Case Study – Marine Academy Plymouth

Report to Marine Academy Primary on the Natural Connections case-study visit on 6th June 2015

 1. Introduction

We would like to extend our grateful thanks to the headteacher, staff and pupils at Marine Academy Primary for making us so welcome and giving us an informative, interesting and enjoyable day. This document is a summary of the day’s findings.

2. Interviewees

During the day, we spoke to:

  • the headteacher
  • the LINE team
  • three staff members
  • one volunteer

We also:

  • were given a tour of the grounds
  • visited the Outdoor Learning after-school club.

The purpose of our visit was to understand the extent and the range of learning outside the classroom in the natural environment (LINE) activities and their impact on staff and pupils. Our findings are set out below

3. School approach to LINE

Interviewees reported the following key points:

  • Marine Academy Primary was opened in September 2013 with large but undeveloped grounds. They are gradually being developed into a wide range of areas for learning and teaching.
  • LINE fits well with the school vision for children to learn through experiential and exploratory learning
  • The school wants to create a ‘village feel’ in inner-city Plymouth that encourages children and their parents / carers to be outside as much as possible.
  • Staff regarded the school as ‘really well set-up’ for LINE, with spacious grounds, excellent resources and a headteacher who values LINE as part of everyday practice.
  • Parents’ support of the approach to outdoor learning is demonstrated by their donations of (for example) puddle suits, gardening equipment and logs.
  • Volunteers help regularly with the Outdoor Learning Club.
  • Marine Academy Primary joined the Natural Connections project to foster the development of their LINE practice and to contribute to the local network. They have found the advice and support invaluable.

After finding out some more about Kings Tamerton Woods and listening to what other schools were doing with learning outside, it was just something that really fitted our vision and our ethos really well (headteacher)

From the research I have done personally, I know that all the staff in the school … have very, very positive attitudes towards outdoor learning and they don’t have that resistance or fear of taking learning outdoors that you sometimes read would be a barrier (member of staff)

4. Overview of LINE activity

The spacious grounds currently have a large hard surface with an outdoor classroom; an area recently planted with trees; two large willow structures; a large, flat grassed area, a pond, and outdoor learning spaces accessible from the classrooms. These have a mud kitchen, a creative zone, mini beast hotels and different play areas within the spaces. There are a number of picnic tables in different places for children to work, eat and socialise outside.

The school uses all these places for curricular activities, and organises regular trips to places such as the nearby Kings Tamerton woods, the beach at Mount Batten, the zoo and Morwellham Quay. Teachers also work regularly with different local LINE providers; when they were learning about rainforests, Year 2 and 3 children spent a day outside building dens and using tarpaulin, and Year 1 children did some soft tip fencing when learning about people of the past. There were plans to hire a giant buzz wire as an activity for Empty Classroom day in 2015.

5. Staff views on LINE

Interviewees reported the following key points:

  • Interviewees felt that there is a ‘really positive school culture towards LINE’,and saw the headteacher as highly pro-active in involving the school in local LINE developments.
  • Staff suggested that other factors supporting this positive culture could be a young team in a new school, the school’s financial commitment for LINE, and the local network of advice for LINE activities through Plymouth City Council.
  • Interviewees appreciated the way that they are encouraged to develop their LINE practice through regular continuing professional development (CPD): ‘seeing things that we wouldn’t necessarily see inside; it’s all really good for our development’. The CPD model is for staff to cascade their LINE learning to other staff members to build knowledge and confidence across the school.
  • Staff confidence in LINE was exemplified by one teacher taking his observed lesson outside during the Ofsted inspection: ‘to be on the safe side, he could have kept inside … but it [the lesson] worked so much better outside’.
  • LINE enables teachers to take time with the children: ‘You’re not having to worry about behaviour management so much out there because they are all so engaged and learning, so you can … enjoy the children more’.

6. Challenges to LINE

Interviewed staff were all highly enthusiastic about the LINE activities in school and had relatively few challenges to report; one staff member summed up the positive, anything’s possible attitude with the rhetorical question, ‘Why would we not do it when we know that it works and it’s better for the children?’

Difficulties mentioned were:

  • The size of the grounds. While they are seen as a wonderful resource, one interviewee commented that, ‘it’s really hard because it’s such a big, empty space’. Working with a local consultant to plan and design the grounds has been helpful in encouraging staff to have a clear vision for their use. The school also recognises that this development will need substantial initial investment, but once the different facilities (such as a fire pit and story-telling circle) have been created, ‘they will be looked after and they will always be there’.
  • Maintaining the momentum behind LINE as the school grows in size.
  • Encouraging children to use the outdoors purposefully, especially those who do not go outside regularly. The outdoor area is called ‘the outdoor learning environment’ to emphasise that learning takes place both inside and outside the classroom.
  • While the teachers agreed that they enjoyed teaching maths and science outside, they reported more difficulty with literacy because of the challenge of writing outside.
  • The weather. While rain makes learning outside ‘more difficult’, it was not regarded as an insurmountable problem.

7. Impact of LINE

All staff were highly positive about the impact of LINE on children’s development, reporting the following benefits of learning outside:

Engagement with learning

  • ‘It’s the physical contact with the outdoors and just learning about how it all works and that kind of awe and wonder about the natural world. And inspiring [pupils so they want] … to learn more about that, about how things grow and where they come from’.
  • Pupils are ‘always ready to learn when they are outside … they just like it. Just the sense of freedom’.
  • ‘What we find is the boys, where they may not access something indoors they will access it outside … because they want to be outside’.
  • ‘Children become more enthusiastic about their learning [outside]. I suppose it’s just a different environment from their classroom’.

Storytelling outside is really brilliant; we use the storytelling approach in our literacy learning. But just by taking the children outside, sitting in a story circle and kind of creating that special moment for them is something that they’ll remember (member of staff)

Language and literacy

  • ‘We are not looking at ladybirds on the YouTube clip; we are really finding them. And what you can get from actually putting your hands in the soil for a child is their vocabulary and just their experiences and then they’ve got that to build on’.
  • On a lesson involving a fairy hunt: ‘the children were so wrapped up with the story of we’re going on a fairy hunt and looking for the clues … their imaginations were just lit up by that experience. So then we talked about it, they dramatized the characters that would live behind the door and then when we came back into the classroom they had so many ideas!’
  • ‘The role play out there is fantastic, which then means that they’re using that language. And then as an adult then you can just be questioning them to deepen that learning’.
  • ‘Just hearing the boys’ vocabulary with water at the moment is just amazing! You wouldn’t get that inside’ because there would not be the space and freedom to play with water in the same way.

Social skills and behaviour

  • LINE helps: ‘the development of relationships and sharing. And for a lot of four year olds that’s obviously quite a difficult thing to understand. But by giving them those experiences … in the outside area, it’s helped them bring it back into the classroom’.
  • ‘The behaviour is better outside’.

Confidence and self-esteem

By offering a ‘different way of learning’, and a different arena in which children can develop their social skills, their creativity, their language and their enthusiasm for learning, LINE was seen to be highly important in developing pupils’ confidence and self-esteem.

8. Pupil Views

Pupils were enthusiastic about LINE, with two pupils summing up the general view; that it was ‘more fun’ and ‘awesome’ to be learning outside.

Martin Gilchrist and Rowena Passy, Natural Connections Demonstration Project. Please contact Martin martin.gilchrist@plymouth.ac.uk if you have any questions or comments.

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