Lisa Bell
Head of Curriculum for Early Childhood & Health, Brockenhurst College writes about learning and teaching outside the classroom and the impact on students’ learning.

Brockenhurst College maintains an excellent academic reputation and is committed to providing the highest quality education for all, offering a range of courses, attracting around 3000 sixth-form students from across the region, together with a mix of international students from around the world.  Students on the Early Childhood course are aged 16 -19 years old and study aspects of outdoor learning within their study programme, such as Forest and Beach Schools, and the benefits of the outdoors for young children, with a focus on play and the curriculum.  This learning is linked closely to their placement experience such as pre-schools, day nurseries, reception and key stage 1 classes in schools.

Having achieved a Post-Graduate qualification in the Outdoor Classroom through the University of Winchester, I became aware that my own practice had very little focus on outdoor learning.  Our students learn some elements of different types of play as part of their study programme but there is little emphasis on the importance of learning outside the classroom, not just for themselves as learners but also in promoting this learning with the children at their placements through activity planning and the use of resources for the study programme requirements.

After the introduction of the revised Foundation Stage (September 2008 and revised again in 2012), there is more opportunity for outdoor learning, including Forest and Beach Schools:

”Being outdoors offers opportunities for doing things in different ways and on different scales than when indoors.” (EYFS, 2008)

A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning (Rickinson et al., 2004) highlighted that “there is a growing concern that opportunities for outdoor learning by students in England had decreased”. The research identifies that the requirements of school and university curricula and timetables are a constraint on outdoor learning with outdoor spaces used mainly for sport. I see this in my own college yet my own happy childhood memories of learning outdoors show me that it is such an important part of learning and development.

Experiential learning

Engaging the students in experiential learning is an educational approach that has grown in popularity over the past twenty years, with students able to participate in an activity, reflect on the activity, use analytical skills to gain insight from the experience and incorporate this new understanding into their lives. In other words, it contributes to the transfer of learning and to taking this learning forward, hopefully with greater motivation.

To introduce the outdoor learning environment to the students, we created a display within one of the classrooms. I wanted them to appreciate what was in their learning environment, to generate genuine interest and discussion amongst the group as they arrived for their lesson, without intervention from me. The impact of creating a display to facilitate thinking and discussion generated excitement from students; they wanted to create a display, to go outside and collect items!  Building on their reaction, I carried out a lesson to encourage and promote reflection about what outdoor learning meant to them when they were young children and as future early years practitioners. The lesson also provided them with the opportunity to use the College grounds. We removed the barriers that the traditional classroom can create between young people and first-hand, real-life experiences.

Increased motivation

The students within this particular group demonstrated motivation and began to reflect more about their learning and understanding of the outdoor learning environment in subsequent lessons. Students on the Early Years course can find it challenging and often want to drop out but motivation and success are common ingredients of outdoor learning:

“Young people, in general, enjoy the outdoors, their level of interest is high and they are more receptive to knowledge.” (Cooper 1994)

Motivation also affects self esteem, confidence and attitudes to others and to the environment. The students were genuinely interested in the lessons and outdoor learning, paying more attention, putting more effort into their work and making greater contributions during class activities.  It is now so important that I continue to foster and maximise their interest as much as possible.   Providing the students with first-hand experiences and evidence-based learning will hopefully equip them with skills for gathering evidence and will promote greater use of critical thinking skills, which they do find challenging at times.  It is important for me as a practitioner that the students learn from these outdoor experiences and that the process of meaningful learning continues.


Cooper G (1994) The Role of Outdoor Education in Education for the 21st Century. JAEOL, Vol. 11, No. 2.

DCFS, Early Years Foundation Stage (2008) Principles into Practice Card 3.3 Enabling  Environments: The Learning Environment

Rickinson M et al (2004) A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning, Field Studies Council  Curriculum for Excellence through outdoor learning (Scotland)


This article was first published in NAEE’s Autumn 2016 journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 113).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

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