The new approach to outdoor learning.
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My job is the best in the world: I have the privilege of spending all day, every day with the most delightful little munchkins, each one thrilled by the sheer brilliance of being alive. I am luckier still to be able to do this in a rather unique primary school of just 57 pupils, set in the middle of a beautiful country village. As such, the great outdoors is our fourth classroom and I am honoured to spend such a great proportion of my time covered in the mud of the Peak District.
People’s attitudes to outdoor learning differ so greatly and are seemingly irrespective of age or level of qualification. Where some teachers simply cannot stand the idea of spending so much as a second indoors, others are as repulsed as they are confused by the idea of going outside. How can you possibly meet the national curriculum objectives in a field? What about the weather? Surely a class is easier to control when sat down indoors?
That last one is a big issue to many and, in some ways, they are right: children are easier to control when they are sat in rows, not allowed to so much as breathe without permission. But those pupils are not just ‘well-controlled’ – they are lacking in reasoning and problem-solving skills, physically defected by too long spent on chairs and, often, bored.
‘Control’ is not the ultimate mark of an effective teacher. Rather, we need to see ourselves as enablers, there to empower our pupils to take control of their own learning instead of resisting their preferences and wondering why they then resist us back.
The perfect example of this is when we take our children on adventures: long hikes to a local hostel, where they spend two days building dens, pond-dipping, planting seeds, compiling bug hotels and assembling fires. Inevitably, there is always someone – teacher or parent – who questions if we are quite sure it is safe to allow that pupil to perform such potentially dangerous activities. They are concerned that the pupil with high SEND needs or disruptive behaviour will see the sticks as weapons, the river as a swimming pool and the fire as a toy. And why shouldn’t they be? That pupil is a blazing tornado in their classroom lessons.
Yet, when they come on our adventures, they cease to be that pupil and start being the remarkable inventors and caring individuals that they really are. They show you ways of thinking that you, with your adult brain, could never have thought of and demonstrate levels of commitment and resilience like no other. You see them smile properly for the first time and catch glimpses of the true energy within them. Contrary to the concern that they will, literally, set the school on fire, they prove to be sensible and respectful of the world around them. In short, take a disruptive child outside and watch the resistance ease away.
Outdoor learning is not as simple as just being outside, though. Whilst the fresh air and physical movement have fantastic benefits to physical and mental health, it is the teacher’s change in mindset and approach that have the greatest effect on pupil learning and behaviour. The idea that children should be sat and talked at is as outdated as it is ineffective, and it is little wonder that such approaches lead to pupils struggling to focus. Granting pupils the freedom to control the pace and route of their learning leads us down paths we would not have found ourselves, ultimately leading to a deeper learning experience for teacher and pupil.
I am incredibly fortunate to work with the little diamonds I get to care for in an environment that I love but, more than anything, I am lucky to be able to see those gems shine in the ways they choose, when and how they want to show me. After all, there is nothing like nature to remind us of how little control we really have and how amazing life can be when we give them space to do their thing.
Visit the school’s website at wincleprimaryschool.org.uk