Case for outdoor learning - Ryan Walsh in TES

Posted on 06th January 2017

The case for outdoor learning has been consistently made. So why, asks Ryan Walsh, Head of Outdoor Work at Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst in an article for TES, are so few schools listening?

It is well known that fresh air, being active and spending time outdoors are all great for both mental and physical health. The same is also true when it comes to outdoor learning at school, where almost any subject can be taught in an outdoor setting. Outdoor learning is a core subject at Bedales, with every class timetabled for 70 minutes per week. The children learn bushcraft, horticulture, animal husbandry and a variety of other crafts. They take responsibility for the wellbeing of bees, pigs, chickens and ducks.  Other subject areas are also pursued through outdoor learning.

As well as quantifiable benefits, there is much to outdoor learning that cannot be measured. Ryan explains: “It can help children to be more resilient, more cooperative – more aware of the world around them. It offers pupils the opportunity to work for the good of their school, their friends, their local community.”

There are positive signs. The Forest School movement is growing – but mostly in nursery settings. Children in the early years are encouraged to explore the outdoors as part of their curriculum. Such opportunities, however, diminish very quickly as children progress through the education system.

So why is outdoor learning not being experienced by children on a regular basis? One survey suggests that in an average month during 2013-15, only 8 per cent of school-aged children in England visited the natural environment with their schools.

Ryan says: “One of the main stumbling blocks is the lack of timetabled outdoor learning time. There are many reasons why this is the case: Ofsted, targets, an over-emphasis on results, and unrealistic expectations for literacy and numeracy (and the resultant squeezing out of other subjects).”

There is a growing number of special days celebrating outdoor learning, such as Empty Classroom Day and Outdoor Classroom Day. However, Ryan believes that such events could be counterproductive, with schools making a huge effort for one day only, getting in the local newspaper and ticking the ‘outdoor learning’ box, before going back to business as usual.

Ryan concludes: “I’m not criticising these movements; they are effective at promoting outdoor learning – we celebrate both days in our school. But does it lead to regular outdoor learning? It’s like an Olympic legacy; what you do on a regular and long-term basis after the big event will make the difference. A regular commitment to outdoor learning is absolutely essential.”

The full article can be read on the TES website here (TES subscription may be required). Keep up to date with Dunhurst Outdoor Work by following its Twitter account and read more about Ryan Walsh in his teacher profile here.