Photograph by Phil Rogers

rebecca purton grayscale

In an increasingly academic-achievement orientated education system, there are signs that we are reverting to the more tradition, utilitarian classroom contexts of a bygone age. Yet many schools are brave enough to innovate within this framework and understand the wider benefits of out-of-classroom learning and how this might promote even better academic outcomes, as well as create more well-rounded young people? Rebecca Purton writes:

Last week GOV.UK shared the findings of a four year project led by Plymouth University and funded by Natural England to encourage outdoor education experiences for children in 125 schools across the country¹. The principal aims of the project were to facilitate experiential opportunities for children and young people, and to encourage them to engage with the natural environment more. One result emerging from this was that 90% of children felt happier and healthier having some of their lessons outside, suggesting outdoor experiences are beneficial for the wellbeing of the vast majority of children.

The Natural Connections project has empowered teachers to make the most of what’s right on their doorstep and helped children experience the joy of the natural environment. It’s brought a real culture change into schools, making learning in the outdoors a regular part of school life – and it’s inspiring to see children more engaged with learning and happier and healthier as a result –Andrew Sells, Chairman of Natural England

This project is closely linked to the research currently being conducted by Relational Schools, exploring out-of-classroom experiences for students. Relational Schools believes that this kind of experience has a powerful impact on the connectivity of a school community, as well the development of important personal attributes in its students such as worldly knowledge, confidence, teamwork and leadership skills in young people, to name a few. More importantly, it provides a broader context of relationship development.

Outdoor Education is not a new phenomenon; it has existed in various forms since education began, but has never been at the centre of the curriculum. The Outward Bound Trust which began in 1951 with Kurt Hahn is a widespread movement which offers and encourages outdoor challenges for young people. Based in Wales, the Outward Bound Centre facilitates unique adventure experiences for groups of students to learn different skills than they would in the classroom. Organisations such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme also promote more engagement with the community and natural world. And in 2006 the Department for Education produced the Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto to promote increased activities as part of the national curriculum. Despite it being acceptable, and even encouraged, for teachers to plan out of classroom activities, few schools actually put this into practice on a regular basis, often due to the extra pressures it puts onto their workload.

A well-rounded education is key to students’ success and happiness. There is no substitute for interacting with the real world and discovering first-hand the wonders of our environment and what we can do with it.

Outdoors education fosters curiosity and stimulates a desire to learn more about our surroundings, which consequently engages children more in classroom learning because they can relate it to their experiences. This is alluded to in the GOV.UK report which states that “92% of teachers surveyed said that pupils were more engaged with learning when outdoors”. England’s largest outdoor learning project reveals children are more motivated to learn when outside. Those like the Challenger Trust believe that outdoor education is particularly beneficial for students who find it hard to comply with classroom regulations and to succeed within that value system². Children who have had difficult upbringing or have a lack of parental support academically, often achieve when challenged outside the constraints of a classroom. These achievements demonstrate to students that they are capable of more than they thought, and that they can succeed in the classroom too.

At Relational Schools, we have begun to investigate the impact of experiential learning on student relationships both with each other and with their teachers. Can an environment where students are relying on each other to build a raft together to get everyone safely across a river foster relationships in a way that classroom group work might not? The contention is that students learn teamwork and leadership skills through pushing their own boundaries and achieving more than they thought possible, giving them motivation and determination to achieve more both in this environment, and when they return to the classroom.

Relational Schools seeks to encourage all schools to implement a wider range of learning experiences to allow all students the opportunity to try new things and to push their own boundaries to discover their capabilities. And combined with last week’s report published on the benefits of outdoor education, it is clear that rather than hindering academic success by taking children out of the classroom, outdoor education is actually invaluable both for academic success and the overall happiness of children.

1.    GOV.UK ‘England’s largest outdoor learning project reveals children more motivated to learn when outside’ July 2016, from Natural England: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/englands-largest-outdoor-learning-project-reveals-children-more-motivated-to-learn-when-outside
2.    Challenger Trust: http://challengertrust.org/

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