Teaching children concepts and skills through exposure to the natural world is becomingly increasingly popular in mainstream education. Many proponents of outdoor education methods believe that every young person should be given the opportunity to experience the world beyond the classroom, as an integral part of their personal development. Children are now being taught through a huge range of nature-focused activities, like pond-dipping, nature walks, forest exploration, and other ways to observe habitats, weather and wildlife. A whole host of other skills are also being introduced to young people through outdoor pursuits such as hiking, water sports, cycling, raft-building, rock climbing and orienteering. The key thing that all of these activities have in common is that they are based around teaching skills above and beyond those that they can learn inside. They are focused on cultivating a sense of adventure and exploration, in an era when many children spend a lot of time disconnected from nature, in an environment of endless risk-assessments and health and safety checks. Giving children a level of freedom and responsibility is also a key characteristic of these activities. They learn to discover the world they live in for themselves, rather than expecting everything to be delivered to them on a plate.
Some parents have gone as far as to send their children to kindergartens where they are taught solely through exposure to the great outdoors. The film, School’s Out: Lessons From a Forest Kindergarten follows children and the teaching methods in a Waldkindergarten in Switzerland, as well as looking at a more standard kindergarten in the US. In the Swiss example, the children, aged four to seven, spend all of their school days playing outside, in any weather conditions, and learn through social interaction, and activities such as making fires and dens, and singing. This is the extreme end of the concept, and in fact, arguably some of the most productive outdoor learning occurs when it is undertaken in conjunction with classroom learning. For example, in science and geography, subjects like geology that are initially studied in textbooks are brought to life through student visits to see unusual landscapes and rock formations, challenging children to apply their knowledge to explain the characteristics of the land. Similarly, primary school children can experience the reality of wildlife and their habitats, life cycles and populations from visiting a nature reserve and being encouraged to record anything from pond life to bird populations. These kinds of visits are most fruitful when they are compared to further visits across different seasons, or in varying locations and habitats.
Outdoor education can provide powerful ‘penny-drop’ moments, linking parts of children’s lives together, to increase their understanding of the world as an interconnected whole. Take, for example, gardening and farming. Many gardening clubs have sprung up in schools, in order to increase children’s awareness of where our food comes from, teach organic growing methods, and the inventory of a healthy kitchen garden, from herbs, to roots, to fruits and vegetables. Learning about the bountiful produce that flourishes in nature’s garden opens children’s minds to living and eating in a healthy way. In some countries, organisations such as the School Farms Network in the UK or Schule auf dem Bauernhof in Switzerland, have been set up to encourage schools to either set up their own farms, or bring students to visit participating farms. Many schools have found that starting a ‘pop-up’ farm to grow small vegetables and flowers, has been so popular that they have developed it into a full blown allotment club, or even found the land to continue their own mini-farm. Outside school, visits to farms to see arable and pastoral farming methods are engaging ways to answer a variety of questions, for example, ‘How do farmers raise animals in an efficient and profitable, yet humane manner?’, and ‘How do farms protect the soil and environment but still grow enough crops?’. By stimulating children’s interest in the processes in the natural world, we can encourage them to see the full chain of events that result in, for example, the food on supermarket shelves. Greater understanding of all these interdependent elements and the consequences of human action at each stage will hopefully create more responsible consumers out of our children, as well as provide hugely memorable impressions of their school days!
Using the outdoors in education encourages young people to be more environmentally-conscious and consider the effects of human activity on the planet. The aim in exposing children to nature is to foster a sense of wonder and respect, an understanding of the delicate circles of life within it, and an awareness of the need for the sustainable use of resources. WWF and other organisations provide ideas for environmental learning projects on their website, for example, collecting rainwater, recycling, making model habitats, building a fish aquarium or measuring air and soil quality. The more often students come into contact with animals, fish, insects, plants and other life forms, the more appreciation they are likely to have of the impact of their behaviour on nature later now and in the future.
As well as the educational outdoor activities that are directly linked to the topics that children are learning in the classroom, introducing children to pursuits such as sailing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, orienteering, raft building, high ropes, and climbing, are excellent ways to teach children skills that are almost impossible to foster in other ways. Learning to work as a team to solve problems, or acting as the team leader, and behave responsibly are all central to these sports. Mastering practical skills, often from scratch, can give children a remarkable sense of self-confidence, through anything from learning to tie knots, command a boat or knowing how to using the correct equipment. Encouraging children to be more adventurous also develops their risk-assessment and common sense skills as they push their boundaries. For some children, this will involve overcoming fears and phobias, leading to greater self-assurance. Physical activities like these are a source of natural adrenaline, helping young people see that they do not need to turn elsewhere (to drugs and alcohol) to find a rush. Most of all, making children realise they are able to do things they did not know they could do before the activities session started is a sure-fire way to encourage a ‘can-do’ attitude to problems or physical challenges they meet later in life. And the fresh air always helps freshen their mood!
Taking students outside also greatly enhances the development of their visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning skills. They learn by doing, rather than by constantly being shown and presented to, so they are more likely to connect with the topics they are learning about. In many areas, encouraging children to spend more time in natural environments helps their concentration levels, decreases stress levels, and has been shown to lower the risks of disengagement and antisocial behaviour, as well as improving their psychological well-being. This is also because through spending time outside, particularly when engaging in physical activities that also engage the brain, children learn to experience being fully absorbed in the task at hand, without distractions.
Although some of these activities require professional instructors, proper equipment and safety measures, one of the great things about outdoor learning on the whole is that it does not have to encompass all of these things, and what is more, does not need to cost a whole lot of money. The benefits can be felt from simple activities – even an extra visit to a nearby park once a week. In fact, one of the main points of outdoor education is to experience the world as it is. It is to learn through being alert to all of the wonders that the world has to offer and questioning how it all works, and how it relates to you. It is also one of the best ways to answer questions such as ‘Why are we learning this?’ or ‘How does this affect me?’.
School’s Out: Lessons From a Forest Kindergarten http://www.schoolsoutfilm.co
Schule auf dem Bauernhof http://www.schub.ch/
School Farms Network https://www.farmgarden.org.uk