The benefits of outdoor activities

Research has proved that pupils who spend time outdoors – both for learning and for playing – are happier and healthier all round. Val Proctor looks at some of the benefits of outdoor learning and play, and speaks to the independent schools embracing this way of teaching

There is a large and rapidly growing body of evidence about the benefits of outdoor learning and play, including improved language and communication skills, motivation, independence, confidence and self-esteem, concentration, self-evaluation, creativity and openness to new perspectives.

Education Endowment Trust research suggests that, on average, pupils who regularly participate in outdoor learning appear to make approximately four months’ additional academic progress as a result of these benefits.

In a recent four-year research study involving children in 125 schools in the south of England, Natural England found that 92% of pupils enjoyed their lessons more when outdoors, with 90% feeling happier and healthier as a result.

Caroline Hoole, head of adventure and service at Lomond School in Scotland, says: “Outdoor education is one of the core experiences any child should have regularly. This is especially relevant in terms of contributing to mental wellbeing.”

She continues: “Whether they are on an adventure up Ben Nevis, canoeing on Loch Lomond or completing the Great Glen Cycle Route, pupils can come to life during all types of outdoor pursuits and in turn, we see how the skills they have taken on translate into their performance in class.”

Hoole says barriers such as consent forms and paperwork can stop teachers moving their class outdoors, but believes weekend day trips and school holidays should not be the only chance children are given to explore outside.

“Unless you have easily accessible green space near the school, proper outdoor lessons would have to be planned. One way to do this is a local consent form that covers a variety of locations filled out at the start of the year, giving annual permission for a range of class trips,” she advises.

St Swithun’s in Winchester is lucky enough to have sufficient outdoor space for its pupils.

In 2017, St Swithun’s invested in an outdoor classroom with a canopy roof

In 2017, the school invested in an outdoor classroom with a canopy roof that can be put up and taken down when necessary, and this year it has begun an extensive outdoor play project to redevelop the pre-prep playground and create exciting play spaces for the children.

It includes an outdoor amphitheatre, adventure play equipment and zones to encourage imaginative play.

“We wanted an outdoor teaching space that could be used year round, to help us take advantage of our beautiful school grounds on the edge of the South Downs and to encourage teachers to seek out opportunities to increase our outdoor learning provision,” explains headmistress of the prep, Rebecca Lyons-Smith.   

She continues: “All curriculum areas can be supported by outdoor learning and we are lucky that our school grounds provide a variety of environments with the space and freedom for a type of learning that cannot be replicated indoors.”

Lyons-Smith says St Swithun’s’ outdoor classroom can be used in much the same way as a traditional classroom, but the children rarely spend too long in there before being sent off to explore, play, complete a task or practise a skill in the outdoor environment. 

“In primary and early years settings, learning and play are so intertwined that it is hard to differentiate between the two, and children will find a way to play anywhere,” says Lyons-Smith.

Outdoor education is one of the core experiences any child should have regularly. This is especially relevant in terms of contributing to mental wellbeing

She continues: “While playing on a favourite low branch in our Forest School area, the children are stimulating their vestibular system and learning to orientate themselves in the world.

“The development of this system and the associated benefits is why climbing frames are important play facilities, particularly for children who are less able to access natural environments and the natural climbing equipment within them, such as trees.” 

Another good example of developing existing premises comes from Holy Cross Prep in Kingston Upon Thames, which had a piece of land that was always waterlogged and therefore unusable for most of the year. The school converted the area into a new facility that provides a space for pupils to play and carry out most sports all year round.

Pupils at Holy Cross Prep now have access to two all-weather surfaces

The pupils now have access to two all-weather surfaces, cricket nets and a pavilion building which all provide new and exciting learning spaces that are highly adaptable for different lessons. The school’s bursar, Russell Hanna, says more lessons can now be taught outside the classroom which, in turn, “expands pupils’ knowledge and learning”.  

A new dimension to playtime

As part of a strategy to increase opportunities for imaginative play within school, St Margaret’s School in Hertfordshire opened a new playground in 2018, aimed at bringing a new dimension to play times for pupils.

The playground is designed to offer safe but enhanced opportunities for physical challenge as well as to encourage imaginative and cooperative play as the pupils continue to learn about goals, perseverance and resilience.

When you are looking at developing a play area in your school grounds, you need to be sure that anything you do complements the current surroundings and takes into account the local environment and wildlife,” explains Liz Norris, head of juniors at St Margaret’s.

With lots of woodland and surrounding fields, it was important during the planning stages to ensure that the playground would fit into the local surroundings and showcase the school’s beautiful countryside setting.

The playground is now used by children in reception through to year 6, and the space boasts an array of exciting physical experiences from a three-towered ‘cook multi-play unit’ with a large platform, to a firefighter’s pole, a climbing wall with scramble net, a jungle swing trail and multiple slides and tunnels.

St Margaret’s School has also invested in an extended outdoor learning space for pre-reception.

There is a staged performing arts area to encourage roleplay and musical activities, a bespoke playhouse, interactive wooden pirate ship, sand pit and construction area, as well as a mud kitchen and range of bicycles and scooters.

Learning as you go

Norris says: “Play is an area of life that doesn’t have to have the learning objectives or success criteria that children are so used to seeing in the classroom. Without doubt, the personal health and wellbeing benefits of play are evident in every school across the country.

Children need opportunities outside of the classroom to rise to non-academic challenges. The playground is often shared by children across a wide range of ages, too, and therefore gives them an opportunity to aspire to succeed in games and activities as they witness the abilities and achievements of others around them – learning as they go.”

Skills developed during playtime can also transfer to the classroom and can lead to greater confidence.

Sport is just as important to learning as it is to the physical wellbeing of children. Chris Pickles, managing director of Playrite, believes that sport teaches teamwork, responsibility to teammates, and supporting others: “A play facility allows the child’s mind to explore and imagine with no boundaries.”

When you are looking at developing a play area in your school grounds, you need to be sure that anything you do complements the current surroundings and takes into account the local environment and wildlife

The role of the teacher

But does the responsibility of the teacher change when learning and play move outdoors? Lyons-Smith believes the teacher’s role is often more hands-off than in the traditional classroom, becoming one of observer and facilitator while the children are encouraged to take the lead in teaching themselves and each other. 

“It is amazing how much you can learn about the children by doing this, and how much they can learn,” she adds.

“The teacher may have an idea as to how a child will respond to a situation or how they would use a piece of equipment but children always surprise us,” she says.

St Margaret’s School’s interactive wooden pirate ship

Most teachers believe playtime is more than simply a part of the day for children to let off steam. While all children need to have regular breaks from the focus expected in the classroom, play gives them an additional way to discover and take risks.

It is only through play that children begin to learn more about who they are, and the added benefit of taking the lesson outdoors provides a multitude of benefits that will aid children throughout the rest of their lives.


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