Outdoor learning – making the most of the natural environment

In today's blog post, guest writer John Dabell looks at the importance of learning outside the classroom and how outdoor learning can benefit both children and teachers alike.

There is nothing better than an empty classroom. Most teachers love an empty classroom. It’s probably the best part of being a teacher, in fact – no children in the classroom is bliss.

I am, of course, referring to the importance of ‘Learning outside the classroom' (LOTC).

Out of kilter

There’s nothing wrong with indoor learning; it’s just that it’s not outdoors. Being an ‘outie' presses different buttons and opens up new learning experiences, the chance to explore, share, imagine, laugh, learn and create.

You can’t really claim to have a broad and balanced curriculum sitting at a desk for most of the day; it’s just not good for the learning jelly. Children are not office workers, and the only place they are going to get their Vitamin D is by going outside.

This doesn’t mean that we go all ‘Swallows and Amazons’ but that we strive for experiences that take us inside out in order to grow a few more inches.

Most children are in their element when they get the chance to go outside because they can go out of their minds, but in the right way. It’s the most potent way to learn.

outdoor learningSpell it out

Creative doyen Sir Ken Robinson sees outdoor learning as vital for education and he lists a handful of reasons why going outside to learn makes sense:

  • nature is a powerful resource
  • children can play through practical hands-on activities
  • you can tap into children’s curiosity
  • it is a social experience and children learn from working together
  • learning outdoors is fun

Colouring outside the lines has to be encouraged because it helps children to be world-savvy.

To this list we could add a whole pile of other life-changing benefits and rewards such as:

  • enhanced spiritual, sensory and aesthetic awareness
  • increased physical and mental health
  • broadened horizons
  • environmental mindfulness
  • improved motivation
  • enjoyment
  • confidence

Not forgetting that outdoor learning can lead to better behaviour, increased self-reliance, a rise in standards and expectations and potentially a rise in attainment.

Did I also mention that it builds confidence and creates powerful memories that last a lifetime?

The paybacks of the outdoor classroom are not confined to children as teachers too can benefit from improved relationships with their pupils, personal development and fizzy curriculum thinking. Outdoor learning really is in a class of its own.

Doing the educational hokey-cokey involves going in-out, in-out and shaking it all about. Too much time indoors can leave children with nature deficit disorder and feel like fish out of water when they do get the chance.

outdoor learningDay in, Day out

Every child needs frequent, continuous and progressive learning beyond the cave of the classroom. Outdoor learning readily engages children in learning, gives them quality opportunities to develop their skills, knowledge and understanding, and gives them opportunities to innovate, take risks and express themselves.

The benefits of outdoor education are far too important to forfeit which is why integrating outdoor experiences into the curriculum is educationally vital. The best thing is, outdoor education can happen at any time.

Learning outdoors isn’t a frilly ‘nice to have’ frivolous add-on but a necessary entitlement that extends well beyond early years. While targets and curriculum demands may have pushed it to the margins, many schools have created and nurtured outdoor time and incorporated it into their school life through their creative curriculum provision. A timetable without time outside is just a wonky table with bits of folded paper stuck under the legs.

Recent changes to the curriculum have now given schools far more flexibility to cater for children’s needs and allow curriculum designers to truly embed outdoor learning into school life, across subjects and key stages.

Out and out learning

The school environment is the best learning tool we have, and successful schools capitalise on this by injecting them with life and meaning in order to milk learning opportunities wherever they can.

Got a grassed area? Then chickens, rabbits and goats make it your school farm. Go on a rock hunt, a nature walk, or visit a local stream; go here, go there, go everywhere. Why think indoors when you can think outdoors?

As E.E. Cummings once said, ‘The world is mud-luscious and puddle wonderful’ and so playing outdoors is the best research going for stretching creative muscles.

Clapped out

It is highly likely outside learning features strongly in your school’s provisions. But if you haven’t checked the blood pressure of your ‘Learning outside the classroom’ policy recently, then use the audit tool below to find out exactly what’s going on in and out of your school’s classrooms. You might be surprised what you discover.

Over and out.

Download your PDF version of the audit tool.

outdoor learning

John Dabell.

About John Dabell

John Dabell is an Ofsted trained primary maths specialist. He is a published author who regularly writes for leading educational publishers, contributing articles, features and reviews on a range of subjects.





Opportunities for outdoor learning

For more information about learning outside the classroom visit the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom website.

The Cornerstones Curriculum features a vast range of opportunities for LOTC. Our Imaginative Learning Projects (ILPs) offer fantastic ideas for experiencing and investigating both the man–made and natural environment. Activities include beachcombing, making large-scale minibeasts, nurturing an allotment, creating a sensory garden, cloudspotting, shadow hunting…the list is endless. 

Download our FREE comprehensively resourced sample project Beast Creator and explore LOTC with your class!


Published by

Melanie Moore

Mel is Curriculum Director and the author of the Cornerstones Curriculum. She writes, edits and oversees all curriculum materials and leads our creative team. Mel has over 20 years of primary teaching experience, including as a deputy headteacher. She has also been a teacher adviser and a local authority strategy adviser.

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