Before the summer holidays, I embraced the concept of Empty Classroom Day and International Mud Day with enthusiasm. However, I must confess that in the past I haven’t been great at getting my pupils outdoors regularly. I do more than some and less than others. My pupils have had some great experiences learning outdoors but not enough.
So this academic year, I have challenged myself to do something outdoors every day with my P1-3 class, with Fridays being our ‘big’ outdoor session. I have just come across a note I wrote about outdoor education before the summer which said it is ‘not about ticking boxes’. But now I think it is. I’ve changed my mind. Because when you tick the box, lots of other lovely stuff happens along the way. And ticking the box is the first step.
I think that, for many teachers, it’s about dipping their toe in the water. I literally have a box on my daily planner for the outdoors and I love ticking it at the end of the school day (I know… I’m sad!). We’ve taken boxes of toys outside to play, we’ve had planning sessions for our topic using an upturned table and a giant sheet of paper on the grass pitch, we’ve been on a long scavenger hunt in the rain, we’ve explored our school grounds and noticed things we never paid attention to before, we’ve made chalk people and we’ve got our hearts racing with some exercise.
Recently, I heard a teacher say that they would rather do something meaningful outdoors rather than just tick a box for the sake of it. That’s excellent if you have the knowledge and ideas to make that possible, but I think a lot of teachers shy away from the outdoors as they think they don’t know how to do ‘proper’ outdoor education. Teachers who aren’t good at gardening, who can’t name wild birds, who freak out when they see a spider and who don’t view themselves as ‘outdoorsy’ may think that they don’t have the skills or know-how to make learning in the outdoors worthwhile. I appeal to those teachers to give it a go – starting with transferring simple activities from the class to the outdoors e.g. mental maths, spelling games using chalk on the path instead of white boards or storytime. Tick the box for the sake of it.
Things don’t always go smoothly. I had the bright idea of using big sticks/branches donated by a parent and a variety of types of string to create 3D shapes in groups and it was a disaster. There were more than a few pupils who did not engage in the activity, the midges were out if force, the sticks were all different sizes and by the end we had nothing resembling a 3D shape. To make matters worse, parents were passing through our outdoor classroom to take their children to nursery and I was very aware of the fact that it looked chaotic! But we encourage children to learn from their mistakes and so should we. Rather than let it deter me from the outdoors, I saw it as a sign that we needed more practice. It was clear that pupils had a lot of work to do on their teamwork and perseverance, and I had a thing or two to learn about what would and wouldn’t work for my young class. I don’t need to justify our presence in the outdoors with a knowledge-based learning intention and I don’t need to know all about wildlife to make my class’ time outside meaningful. If working a bit better as a team is ‘all’ my class get out of an outdoor activity, I count that as a result.
I think that getting outdoors is particularly important for our new P1 pupils. School is full-on and the days are long. If I think they would enjoy a walk around the school grounds to see if they can identify the muddiest part, I’m taking them outside. Maybe the next day, we’ll go on that same walk and notice that the ground is dry and talk about evaporation… but maybe we won’t. I don’t have to make it academic to feel that it was ok to do it in the first place. One of my favourite moments a couple of weeks ago was running down a hill holding a new P1 pupil’s hand whilst we both wailed ‘Aa-a-a-a-a-a…’ every time she demanded ‘again!’. The same girl had been in floods of tears when the bell had rung at 9am as the first few days at school had taken their toll. She didn’t learn the names of the trees we passed or the difference between vertebrates and invertebrates on that class walk but she had fun and that was what she needed the most.
Once you start ticking that box, and exploring the outdoors the pupils will guide their future learning experiences outside by what they notice and what they ask when you’re outdoors. The teacher (no matter how inexperienced in outdoors education) will start to see ways of using what is on offer to complement what goes on in the classroom. Don’t worry about doing it properly, just make a start.
Or go big … throw a tree party and invite a tree to tea! https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/naturedetectives/blogs/nature-detectives-blog/2016/07/tree-party-picnic-2016/
Tick the box for the sake of it.