Outdoor Learning – Part II: Holy Grail or Tin Cup

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Commercial Primary School in Dunfermline (Fife) provided the first opportunity to test the various benefits of outdoor learning for children. The school offers outdoor learning experiences for P6 and P7 pupils through the Discovery (P6) and Explorer Award (P7) of the John Muir Trust. In close cooperation with Ardroy Outdoor Education Centre the school established a two-year plan for pupils involving activities around growing herbs in a quad, experiencing nature in the school-owned woods and summer and winter residentials. In the classroom the children then reflected on their experiences by making posters, talking with their peers and collecting more information on the plants and animals that they had seen during their fieldwork.

 

When asked, the children happily explained their favourite activities and projects: canoeing, river crossing, litter picking, gardening and planting, watching animals and touching trees and plants. Unsurprisingly, the activities children like most where those that involved being and playing outside as a contrast to the time they spend in classrooms. Recent research found out that children preferred outdoor activities by getting outside and experiencing nature and something that they were not used to. However, certain aspects of their daily lives still have the potential to draw them back inside, as one child explained: “I want to be outside all the time except when we come in to watch movies.” Let us be honest: Who can resist watching a good movie?

 

The children’s enthusiasm can also change their motivation at school and their overall learning outcomes according to SEER (2000). During this study, 72 per cent of secondary school children performed better academically (reading, maths, science, attendance and grades) compared to schools with a traditional curriculum.

A look into the Commercial School Booklet in deed reveals that P3s to P7s rank higher compared to other Fife pupils’ attainments in reading, writing and maths. The more it surprised me when Ann Black, headteacher of Commercial PS, explained that “academic knowledge has not been more improved than before”. Although she admitted that there was no actual base to judge on, she certainly has enough experience to notice changes in academic performance. Whether or not other factors have influenced the better results of Commercial PS’ pupils remains a matter of debate.

 

What certainly had been improved, though, were social skills and social behaviour, explained Ann Black. Victoria Wishart, teacher of the mixed P6/P7 pupils we were visiting, supported this statement by adding that the children’s social skills improved as they had to work with “other pupils outside their peer group”.

 

So, is Outdoor Learning the “Holy Grail” of modern education?

 

Studies have identified certain problems that can alter the outcome of outdoor learning. Fears and phobias are one of them. The children’s concerns about natural hazards when being outside, uncomfortable weather conditions and the fear of getting lost in the wild can be barriers that teacher and outdoor providers have to deal with (Bixler et al., 1994; Wals, 1994).

At Commercial PS some pupils pointed out these concerns. The most common answer to what they didn’t like about being outside was getting wet and cold. Being physically exhausted from the activities was another one. One girl explained to me that walking through a labyrinth once gave her a strong feeling of “getting very, very lost”. She also expressed her sensation of safety when she finally got out again. Her answer to my next question, however, revealed that most of the time the curiosity and experience itself might be enough to overcome fear. When asked, if she would do it again, she replied: “Yes, any time!”.

 

The lack of confidence of teachers to involve in outdoor learning had never been a problem at Commercial PS, said Ann Black. Staff members even went on an outdoor training course to meet teachers from other schools to experience outdoor learning first-hand. She admitted, though, that this could be a serious barrier to overcome.

 

The same goes with existing policies and external problems. The school ground is vast and open with grassland. An ideal area for setting up a garden.

 

However, the quad and greenhouse are located within the schools inner courtyard. Why is that? Ann Black blamed the ongoing vandalism that prevented them from advancing the garden works towards the outer parts of the school. Even the woods had to be cleared off rubbish left by regular intruders from town.

 

Regardless of possible barriers, I left the school with the feeling that outdoor learning through the John Muir Award is well integrated into daily school life. The more excited I am to learn what other outdoor providers have to offer.

 

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