Why every child should experience an outdoor education

By Jane Prescott, Headmistress of Portsmouth High School and a member of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA)

Today’s children are not able to enjoy the type of freedom given to previous generations, and miss out on some aspects of learning that occurred naturally in the past. During the Second World War Portsmouth High School was evacuated into the Hampshire countryside and one former pupil from that time recounted to me how she was allowed to roam the country lanes with a picnic and a few friends if they had finished their schoolwork.

The same is not true for children of today who lead much more cosseted lives. Our busy streets mean that, certainly in urban environments, it is not safe to allow young children to cross roads unaccompanied.

However, schools are addressing this deficiency with programmes such as forest and beach schools. The very name suggests that this takes place outdoors and is only possible if there is access to fields, woods and water, but this is not always the case.

At Portsmouth High School we have adopted an explorative approach to learning which ensures girls use thinking skills that apply across the curriculum and beyond into sport, music and drama. The girls are encouraged to become curious explorers which fuels their imagination and develops their interest in learning. They are motivated by a spirit of enquiry, and explore ideas and arguments in a generous, critical and constructive way, trying out new things and developing new skills like leadership.

This is, in part, achieved through our outdoor learning curriculum which includes time for forest and beach schools within the day. It is embedded in what we do and not just an add-on to the schemes of work.

I recently attended the Global Forum on Girls’ Education in Washington DC to speak with colleagues about this approach to outdoor learning. What I discovered was that there are schools across the world embracing this form of teaching. One school had even made a chicken coop using their 3D printer along with the imagination of their pupils and their ingenuity.

Jane Prescott

What I contributed was that you do not need to be surrounded by acres of land and space or even water to experience the benefits of outdoor discovery learning. It is important that the school buys into the concept and embraces a move away from traditional lessons. Having it as part of the weekly activity programme which is sacrosanct and cannot be taken away for other activity is vital. Training staff across the schools means that everyone sees and upholds the value and the benefit.

Recently we built an outdoor classroom which serves as a focus for lessons and enables lessons to take place whatever the weather. We have one to two hours a week dedicated to individual classes and other teachers choose to use the grounds in subject-based lessons.

Children of all ages learn about fire and use flint and steel to light combustible material they have gathered themselves. They learn safety skills such as how to use saws, knives and fire safely, as well as how to whittle wood: once-taught safety skills, during which the children are trusted to undertake tasks with bow saws, knives and fires. This fosters a strong sense of independence and the children’s self-esteem grows from seeing a process through to a clear outcome. With trust comes responsibility and a real sense of achievement when a challenging task is successfully navigated and completed.

The children also grow their own food using the vegetable and fruit plots. They take responsibility for planting and watering and they certainly like to be involved in eating their produce. Again, this fosters a true sense of achievement and they don’t need reassurance from adults that they have done well as it is evident in the delicious food.

We are fortunate to be able to take our pupils to the beach and here the principles of outdoor learning are extended to learning about the shore and safety around water. The children understand tides and the changing profile of the beach, and to encourage responsibility they all help with beach cleans.

This activity can easily be applied to much smaller bodies of water and even those artificially created.

I will end with another quote from our Early Years Lead: “A deep sense of responsibility towards care of the environment and building a sustainable future are key components of the learning. Within the gardens confidence is built through managing risk around the fire pit, sawing logs and helping to maintain the wide range of plants.”

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