Countless studies have examined outdoor learning and the benefits of taking education out of the classroom. It can develop essential communication and teamwork skills, stimulate an interest in learning about the environment and help support traditional indoor learning methods, too.
Outdoor play has always been regarded as a vital part of the curriculum for young children, so why then, is outdoor learning scarcely seen in secondary education? In Key Stages 3 and 4 in particular, learning is rarely taken outside of the four walls of the classroom. With young people spending more of their free time in front of a screen, many are inside – whether at school or home – for extensive periods of time. Not spending time outside can have a negative impact on the mental and physical well-being of individuals; notably it can lead to increased fatigue, higher stress levels and poor health – perhaps most visible in the growing number of cases of obesity amongst young people.
So, should schools be investing more time and resources in outdoor learning? There is certainly evidence to suggest that this would result in more engaged and stimulated pupils and further support learning in the classroom; however, rolling out outdoor learning programmes can sometimes be frustratingly difficult for secondary teachers to incorporate into already jam-packed lesson plans. A number of barriers, ranging from lengthy health and safety forms and concerns about class control, to a lack of support from those at the top of the educational system, mean that teachers often simply do not have the time, nor the support, to facilitate learning outside of the classroom.
Above and beyond
In order to overcome these barriers, many secondary schools are now focusing their efforts on providing extra-curricular activities that take their pupils out of the classroom, helping them to develop essential soft skills and get involved with the community. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (DofE) has been championing outdoor learning for the last 60 years, celebrating its Diamond Anniversary in 2016, and has become an invaluable addition to the traditional curriculum for many schools. As well as taking part in an outdoor expedition, the programme encourages young people to learn a new skill, pursue a physical activity and engage in a voluntary project for a minimum of three months. Encouraging pupils to push themselves out of their comfort zones and try something new can instil a positive attitude to learning, strengthen pupil relationships and boost self-confidence.
An extra-curricular programme can be a really effective way for schools to introduce outdoor learning without feeling like they are compromising time spent in the classroom. Well-established programmes, such as the DofE, already have many resources in place to help teachers enable their pupils to participate.
Fitting outdoor learning into a traditional, indoor curriculum isn’t always possible, but teachers shouldn’t be put off by this. Having a conversation with pupils about the advantages of exploring new opportunities and encouraging them to get involved with an extra-curricular activity outside of official school hours is a vital first step. The DofE’s experience is that there is a massive unmet demand from young people to take part in the programme. Sarah O’Connor recently introduced DofE programmes to her pupils at The Cardinal Wiseman Technology College in Birmingham and says it has been “completely invaluable”. From learning about nutrition and the importance of physical activity, to building bridges with the local community through volunteering in the local charity shops or youth centre, the DofE has enabled the students at Cardinal Wiseman to develop a whole host of new skills, forge new friendships and feel a huge sense of achievement in reaching their end goals. For Sarah, the emphasis on teamwork is a particularly strong component of the DofE: “social groups in school can be very isolating but the DofE completely transcends all social groupings and everybody works as part of a team, teaching them social and emotional intelligence and empathy.” The structure of DofE programmes has helped Sarah to support her pupils’ personal development, many of whom had never even been outside of Birmingham, and encourage them to explore new opportunities that they may have never otherwise considered.
The benefits of outdoor learning should not be underestimated. When given the chance to apply themselves to a project outside of the classroom, many students return to their academic work with a renewed sense of commitment and enthusiasm. Without extra-curricular programmes such as the DofE, many young people would not realise the potential they have to excel at a particular activity, or contribute meaningfully to a cause. Outdoor learning really is as important in Key Stages 3 and 4 as it is in earlier age groups.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Westgarth joined The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award as Chief Executive in 2005 and has overseen a complete rebrand, the development and implementation of eDofE, ever increasing demand from young people and a 95% increase in young people completing an Award. Prior to joining the Charity, Peter held senior management positions within the youth charity sector and was a secondary school teacher.