During the early part of my teaching career I taught in a small rural school in Co.Fermanagh. When we went from a four to a five teacher school I became the proud inhabitant of a brand new pre-fab classroom. It was state-of-the-art at the time but there was one major drawback – once the weather warmed up the room was stifling. Luckily we were situated on a lovely green patch (in fact we were surrounded by green in Fermanagh!) so as soon as the outside temperatures began to rise we moved to the extension – our outdoor classroom! I have great memories of the lessons taught there – circle times with eyes closed listening to the sounds of nature, science classes when we discovered all the little creatures who shared our patch, art lessons sketching the local village from our vantage point, P.E., history (we once buried a time capsule!), discovering maths all around us, in fact almost any lesson that could be done indoors could be done outdoors also.
It was only some time later in my career that I discovered that there is actually a movement devoted to developing outdoor classrooms due to the benefits for children of learning in this way. Research has come up with many compelling reasons for teaching outdoors as often as possible. Outdoor learning:
- Fosters active, hands on learning where children are exploring, asking questions and making discoveries for themselves in a real world setting
- Makes learning a multi-sensory experience. All of the senses are engaged to a much greater degree in the outdoor environment
- Lends itself to cross-curricular learning and celebrates different learning styles, as not all children learn best in a text based environment. It is often the case that children who have difficulties learning in the regular classroom contribute more in the outdoor environment
- Is enjoyable and inclusive of all children – a real child-centred learning experience
- Adds weight to the belief that learning can be fun.
Proponents of outdoor classrooms do not see them as alternatives to indoor classrooms, and in a climate like ours they could never be so, but they do believe that outdoor classrooms can reinforce and enrich traditional learning. Some studies have been done into the advantages of outdoor learning. According to one study:
A main advantage to the use of an outdoor classroom is that it allows children to move freely in a somewhat open space, and that this movement is one of the most natural and powerful forms of learning for children (Maynard and Waters, 2007, p. 257).
In these studies it is reported that both teachers and students claim increases in knowledge gain and understanding of lessons taught in outdoor classrooms and that students also report greater motivation to learn through outdoor classroom instruction.
Remarkable claims indeed!
However, ask any teacher whether they would prefer to teach outdoors or indoors on a fine day and you will almost invariably get the same answer. Just take a look around our own school and you will see classes using our grounds; doing science, art, English reading, writing, drama, geography, P.E., maths, you name it, it is being done outdoors to some degree. Without necessarily being aware of research findings, teachers’ natural instinct is to teach where children learn best.
We are fortunate in RETNS to have good outside space. Our playground is an interesting space with lots of seating and different levels and areas on which to play. It could be better, obviously, but it could also be an awful lot worse. We have a beautiful wildlife garden and anyone who has ever been there will know it is a nature paradise. We are grateful for the help we receive from parents to maintain the space, and we are hoping to develop our outdoor space even more in the future. There is a whole world beyond the indoor space waiting to be explored. With some thoughtful planning, collaboration and sharing of ideas among staff, parents and pupils, a bit of time commitment and the necessary resources we can capitalise on the space we have and utilise it to its full potential so that it becomes a space for learning, for exploration, for being with nature and for demonstrating our ethos of celebrating diversity, caring for our environment and providing learning experiences that are child-centred and creative.
“There are two values you can give a child. The first of all roots, and then wings.” (Native American proverb)