Updated: May 8, 2019
There is little doubt that outdoor and experiential learning has many benefits for children. It helps make learning relevant, meaningful and authentic by engaging learners through hands-on experience. Abstract concepts and knowledge learned within the classroom make much more sense when set in a real-world context.
Regular curriculum subjects can be brought to life outside the classroom, by using the senses and engaging students using a wide variety of learning approaches. Students can see, touch, smell, hear and taste things for themselves, which helps to solidify learning and create a buzz of excitement that promotes a love of learning through student-led discovery.
Are We Just Box Ticking?
So why not make structured outdoor learning an integral part of every school day? What would we need to do to truly incorporate curriculum-based outdoor education into every child's learning? What might the barriers and challenges be?
Of course, most schools in the developed world do incorporate some form of outdoor education into the school program, often through a residential trip based on outdoor adventure or similar. But it can sometimes feel like it's more of a box ticking exercise than an integral part of our education system, which I believe needs to change.
Outdoor Education Residentials
Outdoor education residentials typically go something like this: The children arrive, do some ice breaker activities, go hiking, kayaking, rock climbing and play some team building games, reflect on their experiences and finish with a campfire on the final evening. Then they return to the four walls of the school classroom, only to do it all over again (or something similar) the following year.
Of course, there's lots of value in sleeping away from home and experiencing challenge and adventure in nature, together with independence away from parents and siblings. That's not my point. As the current Program Director at The Howling Gibbon Outdoor Education Centre in Thailand, I can attest to the value of such residential experiences for young people. But it's not enough to go on an outdoor education residential for three days per year, and tick the outdoor learning box each time until the following academic year. We need to go further, much further!
On the other end of the outdoor learning spectrum are Forest Schools, which adopt outdoor play and curriculum-based learning, almost entirely outside usually within a woodland environment. There are now a growing number of Forest Schools, which are gaining popularity in many countries, especially within Europe. For some parents though, forest schools are a step too far, while others sing the praises of the Forest School ethos for their sons and daughters from the rooftops (or more likely the tallest trees)!
But surely there must be a whole lot of middle ground between Forest Schools on the one hand, and a single annual overnight outdoor education trip on the other?
Taking the Inside Out
Children were born to be outdoors - as most teachers will attest to, sitting at a desk in a classroom for six or more hours per day is a real challenge for many children. It goes against the grain of our evolutionary history - essentially children are born to be wild, and this is something we must keep firmly in mind when educating our bright young minds of the future.
So what could we do in our schools to reap the benefits of experiential learning? Well, it's quite simple really. How about we blur the divide between indoor and outdoor education and make them a connected part of every school day, with equal value and importance?
Science & Mathematics
Many concepts in science and mathematics can quite easily be explored in a real-world context. For example, if you're exploring the topic of biodiversity, how about introducing your students to this complex field of study by finding, identifying and recording the variety of plant and animal species within your school grounds (or even just one corner of your school grounds)? A 'bio-blitz' activity like this really helps to engage learners in the concept of biodiversity, in a way that they'll understand and remember - the perfect precursor to continue learning back in the classroom.
In mathematics, the abstract often abounds. But if you're studying trigonometry inside the classroom, for example, how about getting your students to go outside and calculate the height of a tree using a protractor and pendulum to measure the angles? And then your students gain valuable experience applying trigonometry anchored in a real-world situation, and crucially they actually understand why it's important to learn it!
Arts & Humanities
Of course, the arts and humanities are well-supported outdoors as well. For instance, poetry and creative writing are much more enjoyable and engaging for learners, when they're encouraged to develop their imagination by drawing on real-world inspiration from an outdoor environment. Indeed esteemed poets, writers and artists have been gaining inspiration from nature for hundreds of years.
In addition, exploring colors, shapes and textures in art is much more engaging when children discover real-world examples, found with their own senses in nature. Nature sculpture (using natural materials scavenged from within the school grounds to make an art piece) is another great way to explore a range of concepts in art, and engage in creative thinking, symbolism and meaning.
An Alternative Future for Education
So what's stopping us from blending indoor and outdoor education into one? Well, in my mind, there are some challenges to overcome. Firstly, outdoor education needs to be given the true evidence-based value that it deserves. The mistaken view that outdoor education lacks academic rigor is nonsense. It makes learning exciting, interesting, relevant to children's lives and memorable. In addition, it gets kids active and keeps them healthy at a time when child obesity and mental health issues are showing alarming rises among young people in the Western world.
Secondly, many teachers may require additional training and guidance in experiential education, and how to weave outdoor learning seamlessly into the current curriculum. All teachers would be perfectly able to do this, but they would benefit from the right toolbox and a supportive culture towards out-of-classroom learning within their school ethos. To add to this though, it is often possible to get a specialist outdoor and experiential education provider or consultant to help support teachers in this process. There are also several books which provide an excellent overview for teachers, like Dirty Teaching by Juliet Robertson.
Finally, due to the weather and seasons, it may be useful (but not essential) to have some outdoor education infrastructure in place, such as an outdoor classroom to support learning.
Almost every school has at least some outdoor space with greenery in it, so let's make full use of it! Let's grow vegetables! Let's make nature sculptures! And let's explore the wildlife on our own doorsteps!
The possibilities are endless and the potential impact on student learning, lesson engagement and academic achievement is truly huge!
Within Reach of Your School
One of the best things is, very often you don't need to go far to incorporate outdoor learning into a regular school day. Within your school perimeter or within walking distance of your school grounds, there are invariably hundreds of opportunities to bring curriculum learning to life outside the classroom. Trust me!
And it's in our interest as educators to spot opportunities for innovation in education, and make outdoor learning a valuable part of our day-to-day teaching. Your students will thank you for it, their behavior and grades will improve and it adds another dimension to your role as a shaper of the next generation of bright, young changemakers!
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