What does a brilliant outside building look like?

  • What does a brilliant outside building look like?

Innovative, eco-conscious buildings can be a brilliant addition to your school, says Juno Hollyhock – but only as part of a much bigger outdoor classroom…

There is a distinct shift in the wind when it comes to the explicit views of Ofsted and the benefits to schools of learning outside. Only a few small ripples indicate the shift, but they are getting a little stronger. A few weeks ago our in-box revealed an Ofsted inspection report criticising a specialist school for not making enough use of their outdoor space for physical activity. And an Ofsted monitoring letter found its way to us suggesting that another recently inspected secondary school should make more use of the space outside to enrich their repertoire of teaching methods and resources.

We do of course all remember that oft quoted Ofsted comment from 2008, saying:

“When planned and implemented well, learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development.”

But in the last couple of years it has gone a little quiet, and there were always those who took the term ‘learning outside the classroom’ to mean libraries and museums rather than the natural environment.

Ofsted has faced massive budget cuts of around 40%, and this has of necessity led it to need to refine its in-house specialisms and focus on inspecting and supporting the schools in greatest need and working with them to improve progress and attainment, so it is very pleasing to see that individual inspectors at least retain a respect for the benefits of learning outside and that this appears to be on the increase.

Outside limits

However, in order to better understand our subject we must be clear about what we mean by learning outside, or the outdoor classroom, because there does seem to be some confusion. I visited a school recently where they were keen to show me their outdoor classroom. I pulled on my wellington boots as it was raining, and prepared to inhale some bracing fresh air.

“Oh no need for that!” they exclaimed – “it’s wonderful – come and see.” And they promptly led me to an all singing all dancing log cabin with heat, light, photo voltaic cells and cute relief carvings of woodland creatures. A cosy transition space led to a be-windowed room with views on all sides. This was undoubtedly a lovely space for teaching and learning and a fantastic resource for any school wishing to have better access to the outdoors but without having to manage the vagaries of our climate. But it was also, undoubtedly, a building.

I found myself once again in that sort of elephant in the room scenario where I didn’t really know if I was supposed to point out that this was not in fact ‘the great outdoors’ but another indoors, albeit a pretty stunning indoors, from which the outdoors could be viewed.

Balancing act

There are some truly innovative and beautiful examples of cabin/greenhouse style classrooms in an increasingly crowded marketplace and many of them have fantastic ecologically sustainable features which will add real value to a curriculum linked project.

These buildings are often low cost, environmentally sound, offer brilliant potential for making teaching and learning vibrant and exciting and actually look rather lovely in a school grounds setting. They feel special and children and teachers alike enjoy using them. They will also potentially assist schools with providing much needed additional pupil places.

But their use should be balanced with an outdoor classroom that offers the richness of environment, multi-sensory resource, hands on landscape scale natural apparatus that is so very useful in delivering an all round, balanced curriculum for all children at all ages and stages of progress; a resource that has particular benefits to offer to the kinesthetic learner who will still struggle if confined to an outdoor classroom with walls.

As a general rule of thumb – if you don’t need to consider the weather when you are thinking about what to wear during the session then you are probably conducting the session in a building not out of doors. Outdoors, we can use the shadow of a tree to measure angles indoors, we can measure wind speed, do messy things with water, star gaze, light fires, run to measure heart rate and biological change, observe wildlife other than through a camera arrangement or a screen, hear the noises that we associate with the outdoors and derive literary and artistic inspiration from the blending of all the aspects of being outdoors that makes the outdoors so unique.

We must be clear that innovative classroom spaces in school grounds are a fantastic resource when well used and they complement outdoor learning brilliantly - but they shouldn’t be used as replacements for the actual, real outdoor experience.

The best uses are where the outdoors and the indoors meet, where we see children venturing outside to engage in exploration and activity in all weathers come wind or rain or snow and are then able to go into the building based outdoor classroom to refine and write up what they have learned whilst still being in a special space and still being able to see the world around them.

This is what will inspire the passion for learning that our kindly Ofsted inspectors wish to see.

About the author

Juno Hollyhock has been executive director at Learning Through Landscapses (LTL) since 2012. Become a member of LTL to gain access to the latest news in the outdoor learning sector, hundreds of downloadable guidance notes, lesson ideas and inspirational images PLUS access to LTL’s expert advice through email. All of this support to help you make a difference to your outside space for just £12 per year (plus VAT). Visit ltl.org.uk/membership/member.php.