What do we mean when we talk about taking the curriculum outdoors?
The idea of ‘outdoor learning’ – and teaching – is nothing new. In one form or another, pupils, students and teachers have been teaching and learning in the outdoors since the early twentieth century. In more recent times, and especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been increasing recognition of the potential benefits that can be gained from taking learning outside. ‘Outdoor learning’ means different things to different people, and there are a wide range of activities, lessons, trips and visits being carried out under that banner. So what are we talking about, and does it matter what we mean?
For many people, outdoor learning means an approach to teaching and learning that happens outdoors, often in the natural environment. There can be some unhelpful preconceptions that go with this definition, however, leading to beliefs that teaching staff need a range of specialised skills and environments before they are ‘allowed’ to go outside. Images of canoeing, climbing and campfires create an impression of high skill and high risk activities that are inaccessible to most normal teachers and teaching assistants. However, outdoor learning is simply about making the most of what you’ve got. As Juliet Robertson, author of the Creative Star blog and the book ‘Dirty Teaching’ says, outdoor learning is actually about ‘every type of learning experience which happens outdoors’.
A better way of thinking : outdoors to enhance teaching
Instead of framing the outdoors as somewhere different to the indoors and therefore beyond any number of barriers, both perceived and physical, it might be more helpful if we simply think in terms of the learning spaces available to every teacher and consider how we can maximise the benefits that each space can provide. Indoor classrooms are one space and corridors another, and most teachers have a pretty good idea of how to get the most from these spaces. Looking outside the door we have the school grounds and then the area immediately surrounding the school, with walking distance venues a short way beyond that. Some of these might be green spaces, such as woodlands, parks or beaches, some of them might be streets, harbours, museums or places of worship. If we think of them all as extensions of our indoor world then we just need to consider what each can offer in terms of curriculum links or enrichment. If we are operating inside the school perimeter then we don’t actually need any specific skills that we don’t already have unless we want to teach something that involves a specialised skill or knowledge, such as lighting a fire. What is important here is that these higher skilled applications of knowledge can be added as and when teachers feel comfortable – they are not necessities or pre-conditions for teaching outside.
So let’s not get hung up on whether something is described as outdoor learning, learning outside the classroom or learning in the natural environment. Let’s not become trapped into believing that extensive training is necessary or desirable before we head outdoors, or that Forest school is the only way to ensure safety. Let’s think instead about good quality teaching in any environment outside the classroom. Let’s focus on how we can get the most from whatever we have whether it’s nearby woodland or a tarmac playground and school buildings. Taking the curriculum outdoors should be about exactly that, where good teaching is what matters and ‘the outdoors’ is merely an extended classroom.
Dave Harvey 18/08/20