The Benefits of Outdoor Learning

The benefits of outdoor learning for the personal and social development of children and young people should not be underestimated. Sadly, many inner city schools do not have the required outdoor space to help students learn, explore and develop key areas. School trips are highly recommended for both children and young people from EYFS through to Key Stage 5 but with the current Coronavirus pandemic, will any school trips be going ahead this academic year? This article has a look at the benefits of taking learning outdoors and the scope schools have this year to continue with school trips.

What are the Benefits of Outdoor Learning?

It is important for pupils of all ages to appreciate that learning does not always have to be in the classroom and can also occur in a fun outdoor environment. Having the opportunity to engage in high quality outdoor learning helps children and young people understand and respect nature and life-cycles whilst developing the ability to identify hazards. At the same time they can develop problem-solving and team-building skills in a fun environment. Not everyone learns through reading and writing; whilst some learners might feel that they don’t have determination and perseverance in the classroom, they can quickly discover that they have the most grit in the class when it comes to getting things done in an outdoor environment! Opportunities to nurture this kind of self-esteem and confidence in pupils whilst honing important soft skills like resilience and determination are integral parts of the learning journey.

The outdoor environment can be a great arena for developing communication and language skills. Whilst a teacher myself in the EYFS, I remember in particular one child who never spoke to me. She would speak to the other children but her voice was very quiet, almost like a whisper. For our first school trip we visited a local farm and throughout the visit this same girl was speaking so loudly I had to tell her to be a little quieter! This outdoor experience gave her the opportunity to have her learning and imagination come to life.

Often children are active learners but have no access to a garden and the space to run, skip, jump, pick up worms and enjoy the sound of jumping into puddles. Unstructured outdoor play helps children learn to take turns, share and develop other positive behavioural skills. Children and young people work better in groups when they are outdoors.

Can outdoor learning improve academic achievement?

Teachers witness every day the positive effect learning outside the classroom has on the personal and social development of children and young people, but does it also have the same effect on academic achievement?

In 2005 the American Institute for Research did a study about the Effects of Outdoor Education programs in California. The focus was on 11-12 year olds who were at risk of not reaching their potential in school and were mainly from disadvantaged areas. Over 50% of the cohort reported that the opportunity was the first time that they had spent time in a natural setting. Teachers involved in the study saw the study as an “opportunity to shine” for all students.  Following the program teachers reported improvement in self-esteem, relationships with other students and conflict resolution – the kind of team-building and improved confidence benefits associated with outdoor learning. But tellingly the teachers also reported significant improvements in classroom behaviour, motivation to learn and problem solving skills. It follows that 6-10 weeks after participation in the program they had also significantly improved their science score.

The study strongly suggests that the personal and social development benefits of outdoor learning can also improve academic achievement, especially with learners from disadvantaged areas. Unfortunately other studies have shown that children and young people from these communities are less interested in being outdoors with nature as those from more affluent areas. This however is attributed to the lack of opportunity, as after just one day of being outdoors their interest increased. Findings like this underline the importance of school trips in giving pupils the opportunities for high quality outdoor learning through school trips.

Teacher with Class - Benefits of Outdoor Learning

Are school trips still happening this year?

In 2016 the then Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss revealed only 10% of children had access to outdoor learning and recognised the need for school trips at every stage of a child and young person’s education. Fast-forward to 2020 and we face the bleak reality that there will be no school trips for a whole academic year.

Current government guidance updated this month state that schools can resume non-overnight educational visits within the UK in line with protective measures and should make use of outdoor spaces in the local area. But are school trips still happening this year?

The problem is that the pandemic situation is constantly changing and what might be allowed one week will be prohibited the next week. Schools and parents recognise the benefits of outdoor learning but school trips need to be booked in advance. If they can’t go ahead due to updated government guidelines then they are worried as to whether they will receive a refund. Earlier this month it was reported that schools and trip providers fear they will no longer be covered by insurance for visits cancelled because of coronavirus. With all this uncertainty schools are reluctant to book anything until there is further clarity, which could be well into the New Year.

Summary – Taking Learning Outdoors

Since March there has been widespread concern about the effects the lockdown will have on the education, personal development and mental health of children and young people. Analysis suggests that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will be disproportionally affected and fall further behind.  We have seen that the benefits of outdoor learning extend not just to personal and social development but also to improved academic achievement, especially in pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. So this year school trips are more important than ever! We hope that schools are still finding opportunities to get pupils learning outside the classroom. Many providers are offering full refunds if they are unable to postpone the trip to a later date or find a suitable alternative. 

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