Building skills and confidence in using school grounds

Sam Goddard, Forest School Leader, and Chair of Herefordshire Forest School Group, explains why outdoor play and learning is crucial to children’s healthy development, both physically, mentally and emotionally.

In his acclaimed book ‘Last Child In The Woods’, Richard Louv says that many of our children are suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder’. This is a term which describes the disconnection many children now have with the natural world and the effects this can have on their wellbeing and future attitudes. Research into Forest School, carried out by the Forestry Commission, has concluded that there were ‘substantive behavioural changes’ noted after a programme of Forest School sessions.

They concluded that:

  • new perspectives were gained for the children, teachers and parents
  • children’s self-esteem and confidence increased
  • social skills improved
  • language and communication improved
  • physical motor skills improved
  • the children displayed increased motivation and concentration

There is a growing body of evidence that these benefits can also be found in outdoor learning more generally. Another part of the picture is the benefit to the environment itself of children playing and learning outdoors. Children who regularly access the outdoors and enjoy their experiences are more likely to see the natural world as something important and worth looking after. If children grow up disconnected with their natural environment, they are far less likely to have a caring and respectful relationship to it in adult life. This attitude is likely to be passed on, in turn, to their own children. In this way we are facing a huge challenge to the future development of our young people which could have implications for the future of our world too.

In short, children need nature and nature needs children.

As professionals working with children, we have a responsibility to give them the best possible chance of creating a positive relationship with nature and the outdoors. Forest School is one way to do this, but there are also opportunities to take learning outside on a wider scale.

Outdoor Schools is a new branch of the training organisation Cambium Sustainable. We are based in Herefordshire and have for many years provided Forest School training across the county and into South Wales and the Midlands. As the organisation has grown, we noticed a gap in the training on offer for teachers and other professionals who are enthusiastic about working outdoors with the children in their care.

Although Forest School is hugely beneficial and something we feel passionately about, we felt that there was little accredited training for practitioners who wanted to get outdoors as much as possible to deliver the curriculum using the school grounds or other outdoor spaces.

This was the start of ‘Outdoor Schools’ a new venture which saw Anney Thornton Wood, owner of Cambium, working with Agored Cymru (formerly OCN Wales) to develop Outdoor Learning Practitioner (Level 2) and Outdoor Learning Coordinator (Level 3). These courses are designed to give practitioners confidence and skills to embed outdoor learning as part of their school’s curriculum delivery.

During visits to schools in my role as a Forest School Leader, I notice how difficult it is for teachers and other staff to make the most of their outdoor space. Schools are beset by league tables and targets, often seeing getting the children outdoors as an additional pressure, an ‘add-on’ or something too risky or time consuming to organise. Outdoor Schools courses re-energise professionals, helping them to look again at that leaf-filled pond or patch of grass and think about how they can get the maximum learning benefits for their children by using their green spaces.

This could be from:

  • regular visits to a growing area, planting and caring for food crops
  • taking play outdoors to wild areas of the school grounds, encouraging climbing, balancing and controlled risk taking
  • holding regular literacy sessions outdoors, using the environment as a stimulus for stories, poems or writing sessions
  • taking maths outside with sorting,measuring, leaf algebra or creating shapes with natural materials
  • using ponds as valuable areas to explore habitats and eco-systems, a huge learning opportunity for the science curriculum

The Outdoor Learning Practitioner course focuses on the following areas, from practical activities to understanding the theory behind it:

  • Understanding the benefits and risks of using the outdoors as a learning environment, looking at current thinking on outdoor learning practice and research.
  • Taking part in practical work e.g. gardening, encouraging wildlife, small animal care, identification of local species & understanding natural environments.
  • Understanding the range of learning opportunities offered, looking at the scope and practicalities of developing outdoor spaces, mapping outdoor learning to the curriculum, participating in activities suitable for learning outdoors, assessing the benefits of outdoor learning.
  • Knowing how to sustainably manage outdoor learning environments, looking at ecological structures in the natural environment, identifying species, looking at ecological impact assessments and producing a basic management plan for an outdoor area.
  • Understanding how outdoor learning impacts on learning and professional practice, looking at this from the perspective of both learner and practitioner

The courses have been accessed by professionals across the Midlands, into Wales and further afield in partnership with other organisations, and the demand seems to be growing. It is so inspiring to meet people who are as excited about outdoor learning as we are and share their ideas and projects.

‘We have outdoor learning planned every week now as a timetabled activity and a far more focussed appreciation of the value of outdoor learning has spread throughout the school due to Sue attending your training, so I thank you for that.’  Head teacher

Achievement of the Outdoor Learning Practitioner and Coordinator courses by individuals in schools working towards gaining LOtC Mark would be viewed very positively in the assessment process as examples of how the school is supporting LOtC-related CPD within the staff team.’  Beth Gardner, Chief Executive of CLOtC

More information is available on: Herefordshire forest schoolsForest research and Sam Goddard.


This article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 107).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

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