Teaching outside is a breath of fresh air for pupils

What happens when two teachers challenge each other to teach outdoors for a whole day?

I don’t know about other schools, but in my experience some of the most interesting and valuable initiatives start off as a bit of staffroom banter. Teachers are a competitive lot and coffee times abound with things we would like to change or improve; ideas are floated, built upon, shot down and rebuilt again. Recent conversation in our staffroom, was centered on the topic of the woods, and more specifically on our claim that Moor Park is an ‘outdoor’ school.

There is no doubt that we have the right credentials; we have 85 acres of beautiful parkland and woodland, including a much used and loved forest school site. Our children choose to be outside, they are active and competitive, muddy wellies adorn the racks outside the classrooms and tree climbing is a staple part of playtime.

Given all this, you would think the staff would be content that the ‘outdoors’ box had been well and truly ticked. And yet, there remained a feeling that it just wasn’t enough. The argument didn’t really stem from what the kids choose to do in their playtimes, but more on what the staff choose to do in their teaching time. The question shouldn’t be; “what are we teaching in our classrooms?” but “why are we teaching in our classrooms?”. 

 Taking the children outside brought out their creativity and encouraged them to see their normal classes in a new light

And so it came about that the Head of Boarding, Simon Gedye and Head of Middle School, James Duffield, challenged each other to take the learning outside. Not just for a lesson, but for the whole day; from breakfast and through every one of the core curriculum subjects. Games and activities always take place outside – that was a given – but could valid, rigorous and effective learning really take place in the woods, under a bamboo den, or by the lake? Could being outside become the norm, rather than the exception or for a ‘special treat’?

The rules of our new challenge were simple; every bit of learning that took place had to be from the usual, planned and timetabled curriculum; we would only be satisfied if we could prove that any lesson could be adapted and taken outdoors and that the learning that took place was enhanced by be different surroundings. We were not aiming for a novelty event but to change how we educate.

Being naturally competitive and creative, the teachers accepted the challenge. The results were far-reaching, and far from predictable, impacting positively not only on the children’s learning but also on how lessons would be planned from here on out. The wider staff have decided to take up the baton, too!

Teaching outside made the children engage – actively and fully. it made the learning unforgettable

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, teaching outside made the children engage –  actively and fully; it made the learning unforgettable. The set text, in a Year 6 English class, was Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, and the class were preparing to write about what life may have been like in the trenches. The task was to write a letter home, imagining they were a soldier, sitting waiting for the call to cross over enemy lines. A very effective and useful task, but hard, given it would be a concept so alien to their own lives and imaginings. Now, imagine the same children not in their classroom, but in a den built down in the woods, covered with camouflage netting. The space was small, dirty and dark. In the background, Mr Gedye played the sound effects of warfare; loud shelling, gunfire and explosions. Allowing the children to totally immerse themselves transformed their writing; our children are taught to be good descriptive writers, but their writing became more than just descriptive; it became emotive.

Being outside made the teachers think more creatively. Year 4’s maths lesson was based on symmetry. Instead of folding shapes in the classroom, the children donned their wellies again and went searching for symmetry in leaves, on the building and on number plates. The outdoors is a gateway to limitless resources. During the final part of the lesson, the teacher deployed his drone to fly above the rugby pitches, while the children watched the footage on a live camera feed. From a totally unique perspective, the children could see the symmetry of the lines on the pitches. As plenaries go, it was quite effective.

The effects of the challenge have been far-reaching, with wider staff taking up the baton, too

The idea of theory into practice is a vital one for young children; not just for our visual and kinaesthetic learners, but for all children; the act of doing is much more effective than just seeing. Mr Duffield’s Year 6 geographers were learning about settlements – this being a new entrant on the Common Entrance syllabus, it’s vital that the children are able to display their knowledge confidently. Rather than looking at maps on the whiteboard, Mr Duffield and his class took his twins’ playhouse and walked with it to various locations on site. They carried that little house around and placed it down; on high land and low, near a water source or not, with other houses or out on its own. It was a stark and visual demonstration of the benefits of the perfect location. The learning outside was certainly far more relevant; why would you watch a DVD on weathering when you can go and search for its effects in your own grounds?

Opportunities for collaboration and group work were plentiful; Year 5 scientists worked together to send Morse code messages through the trees with torches, whilst teams of children in Year 4 acted out verbs for the rest of the class to guess. The very act of being asked to work together as a team, brought about its own positive outcomes, and of course challenges.

Moor Park offers a wealth of outdoor activities, which the children participate in on a daily basis, from bushcraft to clay pigeon shooting. The children have been known to take breakfast on the lawns, and all children have the opportunity to cook their own supper on an open fire. If our little experiment was to filter outwards to more teachers, and more lessons, what a great environment for learning we would create. And why not spend dawn ‘til dusk outside? We all benefit from a little breath of fresh air occasionally.

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