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Making sense of outdoor learning research.

Making sense of outdoor learning research

Many advocates of outdoor learning value the outdoors themselves for personal reasons, and for those who have personally experienced the benefits of learning in the outdoors it is easy to justify an outdoor learning approach in their own practice.   Unfortunately, it is not always as simple as that, curriculum pressure, school policies, time, resources and a host of other perceived barriers conspiring to thwart attempts to get outside the classroom.  Making the case for taking the curriculum outdoors is therefore an essential step to a whole school strategy, and rather than building it on gut feeling this is where the evidence from research comes in.  Governors, parents, teachers, senior leaders and perhaps the children themselves may need to understand the benefits of learning outside the classroom before buying into the idea.  Numerous articles proclaim the ‘wealth of evidence’ that supports learning outside the classroom or outdoor learning, but where is it and how can you use it to help develop your outdoor learning strategy?  In this blog we have a brief look at what’s out there, where to find it and what to do with it.

What’s out there

Research comes in a number of different formats, some more accessible than others.  At the academic end are the papers published in academic journals.  These are usually written by researchers or university lecturers and draw on specific research studies and projects.  The papers are peer reviewed and reference previous research to build their own case.  Papers relevant to outdoor learning get published in a wide range of journals ranging from specific outdoor learning focused ones to education, research, health, psychology and environment focused ones.  Academic journals were usually only freely accessible to students and staff enrolled at universities as the universities have paid for the privilege.  Now, however, an increasing number of papers are being made available ‘open source’, and a search in Google Scholar will often allow direct access.   Academic papers are notoriously difficult to read, however, and need to read with care – the abstract and conclusion are good start points and should give you the essence of what the paper is about. 

More accessible, both in terms of language and availability, are reports that summarise a large scale project or intervention.  Background research that supports the claims being made will often be referenced, so the reports act as a bridge between the fully academic and practice.   Two reports that are both easy to read and provide a great deal of supportive evidence are the Muddy Hands report from Outdoor Classroom Day, which includes a review of the literature supporting outdoor learning and play, and the Natural Connections demonstration project which provides evidence from a four year project to introduce outdoor learning into schools.  

Where to find it

If you know what you want to find then a direct search will yield results.  Google provides a general view and Google Scholar taps into the more academic side.  If you are unsure about what you want then an alternative route is through blogs, forums and organisation portals that signpost to relevant material. 

The following are some of the organisations that support the delivery of outdoor learning in schools and have specific research focused sections or blogs on their websites:

It can be easier to engage with research if you are part of a group.  Juliet Robertson’s Creative Star blogsite has a research page linking to other sources and a Facebook group ‘Outdoor Learning and Play Research Articles’ which is a good way of keeping up to date. 

What to do with it

Making the most of research means finding what you need, reading it, and then using its key messages to support your intended strategy.  Much of the evidence that exists already comes from schools, teachers and students.  It might be collated by academics, but teachers as researchers are a highly valuable route to evidence that can support the field.  If you are interested in building your own evidence of impact then the recently established Outdoor Learning Research Hubs could be worth a look.  They bring academics, teachers and practitioners together to develop research skills and practice.  Who knows?  Your research could be the next piece in the jigsaw of evidence that helps makes the outdoor learning case even stronger.

Dave Harvey


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