John Golding from Torpoint Community College explains his experience of being involved with the Natural Connections Demonstration Project, and how he has developed outdoor learning at the school.
At Torpoint Community College we got involved in the Natural Connections Demonstration Project three years ago. Through this project we set up an outdoor learning centre in the woods at nearby Antony House which is used by groups of students each week, in tutor groups or mixed age groups. The project allowed us to train a teaching assistant to become an outdoor learning leader to run these activities. We have also encouraged, through Outdoor Learning Challenges, all teachers to teach at least one lesson outside in specified fortnights. These have proved hugely popular with staff and students and now happen termly. From September, outdoor learning will be included in the Year 7 curriculum as part of our design technology rotation.
For me, the greatest benefit of outdoor learning has been that it has encouraged teachers to try something new and take a risk. With all the pressures of exam results, assessments and impending Ofsted, it can be understandable for teachers to feel they have to be in the classroom focused on content. Whilst this has its place, the impetus of Outdoor Learning Challenge has given them the freedom and the permission to do something a bit different.
Every single subject in our College has worked outdoors. We have had open-air assemblies, maths groups looking for the frequency of mathematical shapes outside, history and geography projects based around the heritage industry at nearby Antony House, music, art and science lessons on the school field and huge numbers of children have discovered the simple pleasure of sitting under a tree on a sunny day and getting lost in a good book. I particularly enjoyed hearing one Year 8 girl coming back in from one of these reading sessions and saying to her teacher excitedly “I might even try reading in my back garden at home now”.
One of the great advantages of the Natural Connections approach was that any activity should be within 10 minutes’ walk of the school. This ‘restriction’ was actually hugely liberating. It meant that we didn’t have to worry about the hassle and cost of organising transport. We didn’t need huge risk assessments and consent forms because we were on the school site and it encouraged lots of our staff to look around our site with a different frame of mind. Teachers began to hunt out underused and hidden corners of our grounds to find spots for an art project, a quiet corner for the Samba band to rehearse in or examples of plant life to give extra interest to a science lesson.
There is no doubt in my mind that outdoor learning is sustainable in the long term at our college. Developing outdoor learning has cost us very little financially. We have all seen initiatives come into schools backed by some external funding which work really well until the funding runs out and then it dies. This is different because it was never about funding. We developed all of the resources and activities ourselves which meant that they grew organically from the work teachers were already doing in the classroom. Going outside wasn’t an add-on extra; if outdoor learning would improve the quality of what you were doing with the students and help them understand – go outside. If it won’t do those things, stay in the classroom.
“To give a comparison, last year we spent almost as much on providing our staff with tea, coffee and milk as we did on outdoor learning.”
Working with the Natural Connections project allowed us to collaborate with other schools, primary and secondary, across Cornwall. This was vital as we were all interpreting outdoor learning in our own way, being faced with different challenges but all starting from the same core belief that outdoors learning was basically a good thing. Our termly meetings were a great opportunity to share good practice, exchange news about different, usually free, resources available and, as we took turns to host meetings, showcase the work that had gone on in our schools. I came away from those meetings inspired and with a new batch of ideas to throw in the way of different members of staff at my college. Outdoor learning also gave us a common ground with our partner primaries and opened up opportunities for teachers and students to work together across the phases.
Developing our use of the outdoors at Torpoint Community College has made a huge difference to our staff and our students. It has encouraged creativity, developed communication and collaboration, provided a challenge for some and an opportunity to experience quiet reflection and escape from stress for others. In planning my own lessons I constantly ask the question “can I do this outdoors?” and I would encourage every school to look at their own site and think about how it can be used to help students learn.
For us, outdoor learning is an exciting part of our future. In September there will be a 7-week rotation for Year 7 students who will be working outdoors for 4 hours a fortnight. We are developing an outdoor learning space on our own site to complement the one at Antony House and are looking to involve more of our primary colleagues in learning in the natural environment.