Blog post written by: Kirstin Whitney, Primary School Teacher in Kingswood, South Gloucestershire on the outskirts of Bristol. She has taught ‘Outdoor Learning’ for the past 5 years across all ages and developed the school grounds to accommodate the outdoor lessons.
My initial brief was to setup and run ‘Forest School’ sessions in the school grounds, to me this was an exciting opportunity to combine my passion for the outdoors with my passion for teaching.
I was lucky enough to train one day a week for 6 weeks with the Forest School Learning Initiative which was brilliant – after a day’s training I went home inspired to tackle the next essay with enthusiasm and interest. In school I practiced what I could with the children in my class and enjoyed their enthusiastic response.
Time well spent
I love the outdoors and feel well rewarded when I can share this passion with others whether through gardening, hikes, bike rides, climbing, camping or canoeing trips. I was sure that I could use the forest school sessions to inspire, interest and enthuse school children too. My only problem was that firstly we didn’t have a forest and secondly, I had spent the best part of the last eight years in a classroom constantly working towards the next SAT test! How could we integrate the principles of Forest School with the National Curriculum and make it ‘time well spent’?
Firstly, we do have quite large school grounds with some trees and a number of grassed areas. Secondly, we already had an outdoor classroom built a few years earlier. And lastly we have a local park only a short walk away. I did need to put some thought into how this land was used however.
Land sustainability was one of the most important topics in our Forest School training. In our case if all 600 pupils were able/allowed to stomp around the few wild areas that we had on the grounds daily for just six months there would be little vegetation left and nowhere to continue with the lessons.
Complementing the children’s classroom learning
I made both a short-term (1 year) and long-term (3 year) plan which included dreams for the outdoor areas with my very modest budget.
In the winter I still planned to be outside but doing activities that could take place predominately on drier ground such as the playground or paths around the school. In summer we would use the grassed areas and also take the classes to the park (to ruin their grass rather than ours). We also converted a disused area at the school to do some growing.
I researched online and signed up to all the free information and resources that are out there, I joined Twitter @wildurbans and began my own website www.wildurban.org to record the children’s work. The website also gave me a source from which to reflect and develop my ideas. It would have been all too easy to take children outside and carry out a weekly activity from the Woodland Trust website (which is wonderful) but I needed the lessons to be curriculum led rather than activity led. With all the resources that I had been collecting I now began to work through the curriculum to see where I was best placed to complement the children’s classroom learning. I was amazed to find opportunities everywhere! History, Geography, Art, DT, English, Maths, RE were all readily teachable outside.
Science however seemed to stand out as a subject which belonged outside and would need resources that perhaps were beyond the classroom. Science began with studying the natural world and still continues to solve its mysteries.
Let the science come alive
Many great scientists such as Newton, Darwin and Mary Anning worked outside collecting information and studying the world around us. Perhaps the best way for young people to learn about science is to investigate outside and let the science come alive in front of them? The education advisor Ken Robinson points to “the 8 Cs” ‘curiosity, creativity, criticism, communication, collaboration, compassion, composure and citizenship’ as being the foundations of education. Learning outside promotes all of these goals. As an alternative to doing a worksheet, looking at a flip chart or a computer simulation in the classroom you can find a beetle habitat; test the air resistance of a self-crafted arrow; trial den materials; feel the vibrations of a homemade wind chime; cook apples that you have grown; heat chocolate; water; dough; popcorn over a fire; record the wind speed; and use a compass to navigate around the grounds.
I decided to start here – using the Science curriculum to inspire lessons outside which I could make appropriate to the age of the children and resources available to us. Near the end of the first year I was extremely happy when a Year 4 child said “Oh good we have you this afternoon, your lessons are the only ones that we really learn anything in”. I tried to expand on my Forest School training to design lessons that taught the children through activities and play, e.g. creating their own fire with strikers (friction); practicing knots and whittling to make bows and arrows (air resistance); mini beast hunting (habitats); practicing Hapa Zome (flower parts); and building dens (materials).
They not only learn the core knowledge suggested in the curriculum but they gain broader experience – they communicate and collaborate in teams when carrying out the investigations. They are often spread all over the school grounds so they have to show composure and citizenship as they charge around the orienteering course out of the sight of any teacher. Working usually in teams they have to work with compassion as they accommodate each other’s idiosyncrasies. The children have become guardians of the school grounds and they have planted Woodland Trust saplings, daffodil bulbs, willow igloos and wildflower areas as well as built benches, bug hotels and sand pits.
Being the Eco-School leader I have been able to integrate the eco-work that has led to our receiving our Green Flag₅ in 2018. The children built a plastic bottle greenhouse (which cost approximately £40) in timber and bamboo canes in the first year. The next year they built a cob pizza oven for cooking their garden produce. Since then we have developed the pond/wildlife garden, introduced chickens and developed a fire pit area. There is a wealth of ideas and resources on websites such as ThePod, RHS Schools and the RSPB, you can get free seeds, potatoes, litter pickers, small grants and workshops.
The impact of Outdoor Learning
So what impact has Outdoor Learning had on the children’s lives at The Park Primary? The children’s understanding of the natural world builds year on year as terms such as habitat, friction, pollination, pitch and prey can be used fluently and encourages them to develop their own understanding. They are keen to maintain the school grounds by doing litter picking, moving worms, pruning, maintaining the pond, fetching and feeding the chickens and even building compost bins through this work they have developed a respect of nature, wildlife and animals. Luckily for me their enthusiasm never wains for their ‘Outdoor Learning Lesson’ as I enter the classroom, rain or shine the children are smiling and excited. They are learning that getting cold and wet is not the end of the world and their resilience is increasing.
The most significant thing that I find is how much more engaged they are in my outdoor lessons compared to my previous classroom lessons. Undoubtedly for the children who struggle in class bringing the learning to life helps no end but that does not diminish the effect that the lessons have on all types of children in the school – they love it and what you love you invest time and thought in. With a more global view in mind David Attenborough says “If children don’t grow up knowing about nature and appreciating it they will not understand it and if they don’t understand it they won’t protect it. And if they don’t protect it, who will?”
Over the last few wonderful years we have won over the parent’s aversion to mud, and engaged their interest in the garden and chickens. We have developed the grounds with four outdoor learning classrooms and teachers also take their classes out for lessons – fuelled by the children’s requests. We have links with the local park association and get involved with Christmas and Summer events. The grounds have hosted Sustainable Learning’s ‘Outdoor Learning’ conference and I run Twilight training sessions for local education professionals every other term. The next training will be in celebration of receiving our RHS Level 5 Award and we will be talking about how schools can get started and develop school gardening.
So if you haven’t already then get started. Apply for Potato Council potatoes find a free spot of soil or a protected spot in the playground and get growing. Print out a google maps aerial view and start orienteering – find maths questions, Christmas clues or just traditional markers. If you have a concrete landscape use the Olympics resources to test your heart and jumping skills or, better still, find your local park and see if your local police supply free hi viz jackets. Track the seasons, weather, wildlife and plants across the year and your confidence will grow term on term, good luck.
About the Author
Kirstin Whitney is a Primary School Teacher working in Kingswood, South Gloucestershire on the outskirts of Bristol.
She has taught ‘Outdoor Learning’ for the past 5 years across all ages and developed the school grounds to accommodate the outdoor lessons.