More ideas for taking learning outdoors

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

Karen Sullivan continues her advice on outdoor learning, offering some practical ideas for getting your pupils out and about

In my last article, we looked at the considerable benefits of taking learning outside, even if it does simply mean using the school grounds as a classroom (Ideas for taking learning outdoors, SecEd, June 2016:

Here, we will examine the extraordinary impact of taking kids beyond the school grounds. The wealth of research in support is, quite simply, staggering, and at a time when our students are spending wholly inadequate time outdoors, we can expect the effects to be even more dramatic.

A study of secondary students from 11 California schools (SEER, 2000) that used an environmentally focused curriculum found that students scored higher in 72 per cent of the academic assessments than students from traditional schools. Another study (Eaton, 2000) found that outdoor learning experiences were more effective for developing cognitive skills.

In 2006, Ward Thompson et al found that outdoor learning improves the “development of a positive self-image, confidence in one’s abilities and experience of dealing with uncertainty”.

In 1997, Hattie et al noted that “the challenging and unpredictable nature of wilderness environments require participants to modify their own behaviour, thus enhancing their self-control and independence”. This also improves “self-confidence and self-efficacy”, they said.

Taking students out of the classroom and a secure world, often governed by screens, can reap rewards. Simply put, risk-taking, whether healthy or unhealthy, is simply part of a teen’s struggle to test out an identity by providing self-definition and separation from others, including the adults in their lives.

Because adolescents are wired to take risks, we need to help them find healthy opportunities to do so. Healthy risk-taking, not only important in itself, can help prevent unhealthy risk-taking. And that’s where outdoor adventures come in – opportunities for things like rock-climbing, bushcraft, white-water rafting, survival skills, building a fire, orienteering in a forest and abseiling, to name just a few, can fulfil a natural need for adventure, pushing boundaries and self-testing.

So where to start? There is a variety of organisations who operate teacher-training programmes – in particular, the Institute for Outdoor Learning offers excellent workshops that develop competence and confidence of teachers in the use of outdoor learning as part of their everyday teaching, with a huge range of options that can be adapted to individual schools.

Or something like Adventure Incubator, an award-winning organisation to help you create a sustainable outdoor and adventure education programme for your school.

There is of course the issue of funding, particularly in areas where parents are unlikely to be able to afford to pick up the cost. Rest-assured, however, there are answers here too. A modern approach would be to encourage the students to fund-raise through crowdfunding, although more traditional methods (sales, packing bags at supermarkets, washing cars) cannot be dismissed, and the pride that would accompany success would undoubtedly raise self-esteem.

Ask local or international businesses for sponsorship; if they are big enough, they will have a budget for community funding and, frankly, everyone will benefit from helping to secure the welfare of our future citizens. Encourage the students to contact them, putting forward the enormous range of research that shows the benefits of field trips.

Outdoor learning is fully supported by Ofsted. In 2009, inspectors recommended that schools “ensure that all pupils have access to out-of-classroom learning to support their understanding of the need to care for their environment and to promote their physical and mental wellbeing”, and this alone should help support any application for grants, and help to make a case with potential sponsors.

There are also a number of grants and funding schemes that support learning outside the classroom. See the end of the article for some links.

Perhaps the most poignant bit of research shows that 97 per cent of us remember field trips taken during our school years and for very good reason. We have the opportunity to build memories by personalising our teaching and taking education outside the school gate – inspiring kids, enriching their learning with real-life experiences and helping them to grow as healthy individuals.

In a world that has recently experienced some terrifying and dark moments, a return to nature, to the healing beauty of the outdoors, with positive risks, group work that encourages understanding, tolerance and collective responsibility, activities that push boundaries and allow students to experience success and accomplishment, to learn and utilise practical skills, to develop self-respect, self-belief and self-sufficiency, may just be the best way to create the type of positivity we all need.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her previous articles for SecEd, go to



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