Ideas for taking learning outdoors

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As the weather (hopefully) gets warmer and the year draws to a close, Karen Sullivan urges teachers to take their classes outside…

Two evenings ago, I sat in a hot, airless university lecture hall listening to what was a very interesting panel. However, I struggled to concentrate in the heat and felt more like sleeping than engaging.

With the warmer summer weather upon us, I imagine that a good proportion of teachers and students will be feeling much as I did, and there is a simple solution: take your classroom outside.

There are multiple health benefits (emotional and physical) to outdoor learning and after a year of a punishing curriculum and undoubtedly some exams thrown in, it could provide perfect respite from the heat and the pressure. Moreover, with a generation of students who spend far too much time bent over screens or lolling in front of them, we can perhaps encourage them to take in some all-important sunlight and fresh air.

Here’s what the experts are saying. In Health, Wellbeing and Open Space Literature Review (2003), Nina Morris found that exposure and access to green spaces can have a wide range of social economic, environmental and health benefits, contributing to quality of life in both inner city and suburban areas.

She notes: “Ulrich uses a range of empirical evidence to argue that the benefits of viewing greenspace or other nature goes beyond aesthetic enjoyment to include enhanced emotional wellbeing, reduced stress and, in certain situations, improved health.”

In her summary, she confirms that the five key ways in which exposure to the natural world can be beneficial to human health are:

  • Enhanced personal and social communication skills.
  • Increased physical health.
  • Enhanced mental and spiritual health.
  • Enhanced spiritual, sensory and aesthetic awareness.
  • An ability to assert personal control and increased sensitivity to one’s own wellbeing.

It is hard to think of a single subject that couldn’t work in an outdoor space, and you can use the natural environment as inspiration for everything from science and maths to literature, art and geography.

There is also some good research to suggest that school grounds and community projects have the capacity to link with most curriculum areas. In A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning, Rickson, Dillon, Teamey, et al (2004) suggest that there are positive gains in science process skills and improved understanding of design and technology-related issues (in particular).

They go on to suggest that the “most important impacts of learning in school grounds/community settings include greater confidence, renewed pride in community, strong motivation towards learning, and a greater sense of belonging and responsibility”.

There is a wealth of initiatives that encourage adventure and fieldwork activities outside the classroom, and these should all be considered to supplement the curriculum, to aid and supplement learning, and to break up the monotony of inside learning.

In my next SecEd article (due out on June 30, 2016), we’ll look at some of the best of what’s on offer and also examine the often profound benefits of this type of education; however, it is possible to use the school grounds, no matter how small, to get the students outside.

In Ofsted’s 2008 report, Learning Outside the Classroom, a number of case studies document successful ideas, including making kites, which “gave them opportunities to work together towards shared aims and to develop skills such as leadership, teamwork and effective communication”.

Why not create some outdoor projects – improving the school grounds with plants or gardens, or even a new fence or a lick of paint, which should be carefully planned, costed, and project-managed by the students, who may also have to embark on some fundraising to implement it.

A wide range of skills, including design, numeracy and probably some science will be involved in such work, and getting them outside will in itself bring benefits. Eco-Schools (see below) have found that “the way school grounds are developed, used and managed can have a significant impact on pupils’ attitudes and behaviour towards school, each other, the wider environment and society”. They have a wide range of ideas to create a rich outdoor teaching environment and to provide activities that link directly to the national curriculum (and you can be rewarded with Eco-Schools Awards).

In the short-term, move the revision work outdoors; stressed students in particular will respond positively. Use the school grounds as a setting for a piece of creative writing or the lyrics for a song. Create an outdoor performance space for music or drama. If there is space, set up orienteering courses, climbing walls, exercise stations or trails.
Use the natural world for science experiments, such as exploring light, forces and sound. Practise field study skills for upcoming trips, including drawing and using maps and compasses, and surveying. Outdoor art installations can improve the school grounds and offer great scope for creativity. Mathematical skills can be applied in the natural and built environment.

In the good practice guide Making the Most of Your School Grounds, the authors suggest that outside spaces “provide lots of opportunities for applying mathematical skills in a practical context including shape-recognition, pattern, measurement, estimation, frequency, data-collection and presentation, and even budgeting for improvement projects”, and the guide also supplies ideas for virtually every subject in the curriculum.

There are dozens of ways in which the space around or near the school can be used, and an equal number of benefits. Next time, we’ll look at how going a little further from the school gates can encourage and enhance learning and wellbeing on all levels.

Resources and references

  • Health, Wellbeing and Open Space Literature Review, Nina Morris, 2003:
  • A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning, Rickson, Dillon, Teamey, et al, 2004:
  • Learning Outside the Classroom: How far should you go? Ofsted, 2008:
  • The Eco-Schools Awards Programme:
  • Good Practice Guide: Making the Most of Your School Grounds, Swansea Environmental Education Forum, March 2011 (includes ideas and links to organisations that can help to fund/support initiatives):
  • Institute for Outdoor Learning (guidance for teachers and some good case studies, suggestions and further links):


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