Don’t deny access to the outdoors

Dr John Hind, Principal at Dame Allan’s Schools, reveals the educational opportunities of the great outdoors

Hearing the news of outdoor classroom day took me back further into the last century than I care to admit and my own junior school. 

In common with many other Victorian educationalists, the school’s architects seem to have had little concept of the value of the great outdoors; the school’s windows were cleverly designed to allow light in to our classrooms whilst denying us any outdoor views that might draw our attention from the task in hand. Whilst the occasional ‘nature walk’ gave some respite, there was little sense that the great outdoors might be an educational resource.

Life in a modern junior school is much different. Our own new buildings allow learning to transfer to the outdoors seamlessly and our Early Years programme in particular takes full advantage of this. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Skogsmulle programme which sees Early Years pupils introduced to outdoor learning by befriending ‘Mulle’, a creature of the forest in puppet form who accompanies the children into the woods and teaches them about nature through songs, play and stories. The success of the programme at Dame Allan’s has seen us share our expertise with other local schools whose children benefit from the access to woodland offered in our otherwise urban junior school site. Later in the junior school the site offers further educational opportunities courtesy of Dame Allan’s own version of the forest school programme which sees older pupils involved in more adventurous forms of outdoor education, including safe working with tools and lighting fires.

Nor must such opportunities come to an end when children reach secondary school age. Dame Allan’s has a long-established Outdoor and Leadership Education Department which runs its own explorers’ award for pupils in Year 9, a programme from which large numbers of boys and girls graduate to the silver and, ultimately, gold Duke of Edinburgh Award programme. The OLED department also offers recreational outdoor activities such as climbing and canoeing and, through the John Muir Award, encourages our students to think in practical terms of conservation issues, thereby helping to overcome the ‘nature deficit disorder’ first outlined by Richard Louv in 2012. This states that today’s young people are more than ever aware of the myriad threats to the natural environment but less than ever exposed to that environment in real life – evidence from the 2009 report which showed that 10% of children played in woods compared to 40% of their parents’ generation being ample evidence of that.

Denied access to the outdoors in this way, our young people stand to lose much. The ability to complete a demanding expedition is so vital to the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme because it tests the resilience of those involved. It also tests their teamwork and sociability. It is no accident that our own senior prefect training programme centres on outdoor learning, with the ability to improvise a shelter a central part of the training package. Whilst strictly speaking not an outdoor event, the task of providing a meal fit for the principal is a further well-established part of that training – and has provided many memorable evenings for the principal!

Beyond the classroom, with its organised routines and academic focus, outdoor learning allows for creativity and initiative. It also allows young people to experience at first-hand the glories and – at times – the challenges of the real world rather than those of the virtual one. When properly organised, suitably prepared and carefully supervised outdoor learning provides a fun, healthy and engaging activity for all – young and old alike – and is a vital part of the education any good school should offer. 

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