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Different ways schools can increase children and young people's experience outdoors

With the introduction of a Curriculum for Excellence, the Scottish education sector has begun to actively promote the role of outdoor learning within the curriculum. In 2007, Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) published a report, Taking Learning Outdoors.

 In its rationale, the report refers to the role of nature in terms of its health benefits emphasising the increased levels of physical activity, the improvements in focus and concentration and the role in stress management. The report also states there is: “Clear evidence that outdoor learning increases knowledge of the natural world, environmental systems and processes, and that this knowledge and development are related to responsible attitudes to the environment.”

Nevertheless, children are not getting access to natural areas on a daily basis, particularly in terms of using this space during formal lessons. Research by Mannion et al (2007) found that the average time spent on outdoor learning in randomly chosen primary schools in Scotland was 19 minutes per week.  In secondary schools, this was even lower at 12 minutes per week.  The study was undertaken during an eight-week period in May and June. 

The following section summarises some key research studies which show the importance of getting children reconnected to nature and getting them outdoors as much as possible. Here’s a few examples of how this can be achieved. 

1. Forest schools and nature kindergartens 

Forest schools and nature kindergartens are beginning to be accepted by the mainstream education sector as a valid approach to delivering part, or all, of the curriculum within the United Kingdom. In Scotland, pilot projects have mostly focused on upper primary and secondary aged school children attending state schools. Now the emphasis is beginning to shift. In December 2008 Scottish Government produced its Framework for the Early Years. The establishment of nature kindergartens is listed as a medium term priority. The Forestry Commission Scotland has also published reports on it's approach to working with young people both in and outside school. Click here for the latest reports and ways in which Forest Schools are becoming integrated into the Scottish Government's education policies.

Key features of forest schools or nature kindergartens are:

•    Use of a local woodland, preferably within walking distance, and selected against agreed criteria e.g. on accessibility and health and safety.
•    Structured, organised and mostly run by local, qualified leaders
•    Regular, frequent contact in the same setting over a significant period of time, e.g. weekly or fortnightly visits to a wood, all year round in almost all weathers
•    Child centred freedom to explore using multiple senses and intelligences – child led and adult supported
•    A low pupil to adult ratio, through involvement of parents and volunteers
•    Children learn to appreciate, understand and care for our natural heritage
•    Provision of a real world context for all learning - firsthand experiences meeting the outcomes of the Curriculum for Excellence. (Borradaile, 2006)

A common way to run a forest school programme is to organise for a class to spend a day every week or fortnight in a woodland habitat.  However this amount of time can be extended to 80% of a child’s time being spent outside all year round, with the indoor space only being used in really inclement weather. 

The term “forest school” is misleading in that a wood or a forest is not the only habitat can be used. In Sweden when an “I Ur och Skur” school is established, time is taken to secure a place which has woodland, a meadow, a hill (for skiing and sledging) and open water suitable for skating within walking distance. Many outdoor professionals believe that most “forest school” activities can be undertaken in an urban park with only a few trees. In places with few trees, beaches can provide an alternative habitat. 

For further information see – Murray, M. and O’Brien, L. (2005)Such enthusiasm – a joy to see: An evaluation of forest school in England New Economics Foundation and Forestry Research 

2. The role of break times in allowing opportunities for unstructured free play outdoors

In North America a huge ‘Leave No Child Inside’ movement has grown, following the publication of Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv in 2005. This book brings together a body of research that cites the need for children to have access to unstructured play in natural spaces.  Schools and local authorities have an important role to play here, in ensuring that break and lunchtimes are not cut back, or removed altogether, from the school day. Furthermore, by greening the grounds and providing lots of plants and natural surfaces on a variety of levels, children will have the opportunity to re-establish a daily connection with nature. This is a particular concern for secondary schools. The current situation would appear to be that while secondary school grounds have a potential value to the formal and informal curriculum, this value is neither recognised nor exploited in most schools (Chillman, 2004). 

3. Gardening as a school activity

Gardening is an ideal way to connect children with the natural world.  Children learn a lot through planting a seed, watching it grow, looking after the plant by weeding, watering and guarding against pests.

Gardening projects can awaken the sense of wonder and nourish the self-confidence of children (and adults) in every setting.  There is something remarkable about watching a garden grow, or even just a few plants in a tub. 

Children from all backgrounds and sectors of our society have lost any concept that the food we eat is directly connected to the natural world. To many children, food comes from a supermarket and is just “always there.” Children are more adventurous in eating fresh produce when it comes from their own garden.  Healthier nutritional habits, once formed, can last a lifetime.

Gardening is a valuable education activity and the Curriculum for Excellence recognises this. For example, one Science experience and outcome suggests that a school garden is an experience which can help develop understanding of food chains in science.  Through planting native plants, shrubs and flowers, children can learn about Scottish plants, biodiversity and the need for considering the school grounds and local community as a home for wildlife as well as humans.

Many secondary schools also recognise and value gardening.  For example Inverness Royal Academy has substantial organic gardens which are part of an ongoing enterprise providing vegetables for the lunch time menus and selling produce in local farmers’ markets.

See further reading/resources section of useful books for gardening in schools. 

4. Being “Nature Smart” is a recognised intelligence

Howard Gardener (2006) who developed the theory of multiple intelligences, designated “naturalist” or “nature smart” as the eighth intelligence after further consideration, stating “the evidence for the existence of a naturalist intelligence is surprisingly persuasive” and “On the eight criteria for an intelligence, the naturalist intelligence scores well.” This is the only addition ever made to the original list since its publication in 1983.

The naturalist intelligence includes abilities such as:
•    Excelling at identifying and distinguishing one species from another
•    Being keenly aware of how to distinguish the diversity of organisms in their ecological niche
•    Capacities which involve using multiple senses
•    Noticing subtle differences and details about objects.

This has immediate application for teachers when considering curriculum planning and activities to meet all children’s needs. Use of natural materials, our senses, being outside and learning in, about, through and for the natural world is necessary to accommodate the nature-smart intelligence within each child. Furthermore such abilities are important in many jobs from science research to practical forestry and agricultural activities.

The Managing Environmental Resources (MER) national courses are gaining popularity in Scottish secondary schools and appeal to young people interested in nature and the environment. The MER courses draw on aspects of geography, chemistry, physics, biology, modern studies and PE.  One of its main aims is to develop awareness of the natural environment.  Fieldwork is actively encouraged even at levels where it is not a compulsory part of the course. 

References for this section 

Gardner, H., (2006) Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice, 2nd edition, Basic Books USA ISBN 978-0465047680 p18-20

Learning and Teaching Scotland (2007) Taking Learning Outdoors: Partnerships for Excellence Learning and Teaching Scotland Glasgow, 5-7

Louv, R., (2005) Last Child in the Woods Algonquin Books New York ISBN 9781565-125223

Mannion, G., Sankey, K., Doyle, L., Mattu, L., University of Stirling (2007) Young people’s interaction with natural heritage through outdoor learning Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 225 (ROAME No. F06AB03) p86


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