Outdoor learning was never a big focus throughout my primary years despite the large field and beautiful Moray Coast on which the school was situated. It was never a topic that was negotiated within our classes and I remember looking out of the window on numerous occasions wishing I was running around in the fresh air near the salty waves rather than stuck in a sweaty, over crowded classroom. Now on reflection I consider the numerous educational experiences that could be gained by exploring the area I grew up in and how important I consider outdoor learning to be.
The topic of outdoor learning has come to my attention recently for a number of reasons. During our second year Education Studies module, we explored the nature of the Swedish education system in which outdoor play is a prominent feature. However having a more significant impact was the knowledge I acquired listening to a recent interview on the radio regarding pupil health and the growth of technology in early years children. For both of these reasons I really wanted to write about the advantages of stepping out of the classroom comfort zone.
The Swedish education system is one of the most talked about in the world and early childhood education and care in Sweden is known to offer exemplar practice. This is due to the combination of pedagogical approaches and unique organization that contribute to its high ranking in the literacy table worldwide. A significant part of Swedish pre-school education is outdoor learning and the pedagogical ideology of Froebel’s Kindergarten. Froebel was a German educationalist and his Kindergarten system grew internationally as an educational model. His kindergarten system consisted of gifts and occupations. The play materials were called gifts and the learning activities were occupations. His system allowed children to compare, test, and explore. His philosophy also consisted of the principles – free self-activity, creativity, social participation, and motor expression. Outdoor activity provides plenty of opportunities for children to explore and develop the values described in the Swedish curriculum document.
I do not believe that CfE emphasizes the opportunities outdoor learning can provide enough, as this is not a regular occurrence in the practice I have observed. However Scottish Government outline the purpose of outdoor learning when they state, “Well-constructed and well-planned outdoor learning helps develop the skills of enquiry, critical thinking and reflection necessary for our children and young people to meet the social, economic and environmental challenges of life in the 21st century. Outdoor learning connects children and young people with the natural world, with our built heritage and our culture and society, and encourages lifelong involvement and activity in Scotland’s outdoors” (Education Scotland, p7)
While outdoor learning is advantageous for our education, it is also important for our children’s health. Over the past few years, research has proven that children are becoming deficient in essential vitamins, especially vitamin D. “Vitamin D is a fat-soluble compound essential for bone growth and mineralisation during childhood. It is produced in the skin following exposure to ultraviolet B light with a small amount occurring naturally in foods such as oily fish, eggs and meat. Without vitamin D the body is unable to effectively process the minerals calcium and phosphorous; essential for bone growth and maturation during childhood” (BBC, 2011). Coincidentally the increase in child technology use has also increased during this period and therefore children are not going outside and exploring like in previous years. Vitamin D deficiency is responsible for bone related illnesses such as rickets, which has also recently increased, and also asthma and depression. Therefore it goes without saying that we should be encouraging our pupils to be out in the fresh air when the weather permits it to prevent these illnesses and promote health and wellbeing.
So how can we make the most out of the outdoors?
Outdoor learning is a useful tool for teachers in many different areas. Firstly, the environment provides many opportunities for cross-curricular links. In my local community (Morayshire) there are a multitude of experiences I could provide my pupils with that would make learning more engaging. Burghead, a small fishing village, 5 minutes away from my own primary school, has a rich historical background of Pictish and Viking eras and was home the Burghead Pictish fort of which the remains are kept in the local visitor centre and the Elgin Museum. Using this environment to explore the history of the Pics would be an engaging activity and could create potential literacy and art activities. The location of the Moray Firth would also offer many opportunities for learning in subjects such as science, exploring the nature and wildlife or the local oil industry, expressive arts, using the picturesque views to spark imagination and also social subjects such as geography and modern studies.
Those who live in towns or cities could use their environment as a means of enhancing literacy in the early years by taking pupils on an “environmental print walk”. Whitehead (2007, p54) argues that the first text children experience as emergent readers is the print that surrounds them in their everyday lives including advertisements, packaging, road signs and symbols, and these are known as ‘environmental print’. Therefore taking pupils on a walk around the streets will provide opportunities to observe print in an engaging way.
Although these are only some of the many ways you can manipulate the outdoors to suit your pupil’s educational needs, I believe it demonstrates the importance of incorporating it into regular practice. With this considered I will aim to utilise the environment as much as possible during my future placements and with my own class to enhance educational experiences and promote health and wellbeing within my classroom.
What opportunities can you identify within your local community that would enhance learning? Are there any other advantages or disadvantages of outdoor learning?
Education Scotland (n.d) Outdoor Learning: Practical Guidance, Ideas and Support for Teachers and Practitioners in Scotland. Available at: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/Images/OutdoorLearningSupport_tcm4-675958.pdf [Accessed 28/11/15]
Hopemanhistory.org (n.d) 1989 – Hopeman from the air – Hopeman History. Available at: http://hopemanhistory.org/1989-hopeman-from-the-air [Accessed 28/11/15]
Reed, J. (2011) Children are at risk of getting rickets, says doctor. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-12357382 [Accessed 28/12/15]
Whitehead, M. (2007) Developing Language and Literacy with Young Children. London: Paul Chapman Publishers.