An article by Richard James Rogers
It was a cold December night at Kinmel Park Training Camp. I was all done up in camouflage: sticks and twigs even stuck out of my epaulettes. It was pitch black, and my seniors had L.S.W. rifles pointed diligently in the perceived direction of the enemy. A helicopter flew overhead. I really felt like I was a soldier, even though I was only a 13 year old Army Cadet recruit. This was awesome!
I was really fortunate to have a childhood that literally depended on the outdoor environment. I grew up in the town of Flint, North Wales: A place that’s surrounded with some of the most amazing countryside in the world. As a kid, I would roll down the old moat like a sausage at Flint Castle and I’d go walking and running in the mountains, forests and on the beaches that literally surround this ancient town. I wasn’t afraid to get dirty either – riding my mountain bike down Cornist Hall hill and tumbling over in the mud, building dams in streams and digging holes to bury toy soldiers. All of this was a normal part of my childhood, and I loved it. It toughened me up and taught me skills that I’d use later in life when I would live in big cities like Bangkok and Chongqing.
Joining the Army Cadets really changed my life, and I don’t think I’d be here writing this blog post as a seasoned educator now if I hadn’t have joined. What did the Army Cadets give me? That’s easy to recall: Confidence in my abilities (tons of it), the best friends in the world, a mentality of pushing through when life gets tough and a sense that being a layabout was never a good, or satisfying, way to live one’s life. I would never have been adventurous enough to leave the comfortable climes of North Wales and work abroad, for example, if it wasn’t for the tenacious spirit that the Army Cadets instilled in me.
I was lucky, and I talk about my childhood experiences with the outdoor environment in this amazing UKEdChat podcast about Outdoor Learning (highly recommended) at 30:06 here:
The modern problem
With increasing urbanization happening globally, many schoolchildren these days are not lucky enough to have the intense outdoor immersion that I had as a child. However, there are multiple, daily opportunities for outdoor learning that teachers can work into into their lessons that we will explore now.
In my opinion, Outdoor Learning doesn’t just have to be achieved through a field trip, residential or a visit to a special place. Outdoor learning can happen within the immediate environment of the school, and this can be worked into many curriculum areas. Let’s explore some practical strategies.
#1 Use the school’s plants and foliage
Even in the most built up of environments, schools will have some plants on site. I once worked at a school in Bangkok that had an astro-turf football pitch (so no grass) and the only accessible outdoor plants were some climbers on a back wall.
But at least it was something.
A funny thing happened one day at that school. I was teaching my Year 9 students about biodiversity and we all went down to those creeper plants with pooters and sweep nets. I thought we wouldn’t find anything, but to my amazement the students collected loads of crickets! I was befuddled, but rather pleased at the same time! We took them back to class and took a look at them.
I later learned that day that my Science colleague had been using crickets in his lab the lesson before, and had just released them onto those creepers minutes before my kids came down swinging their sweep nets! Poor crickets – they’d been prodded and poked and released and recaptured and prodded and poked some more! We had a good laugh about it that afternoon!
This short story teaches us that there are always benefits to using the school’s plant life, even if it’s skimpy. You never know what might come of it, even if a weird coincidence like the one just mentioned doesn’t happen. In addition, students will learn to appreciate their school environment even more than they did before.
#2 Make use of the unexpected
You never know what might happen, but when it does happen, use it!
A classic example was at another school I worked at in Bangkok when a snake slithered into the grounds! It was long and green and had a fat part in the middle: as though it had just eaten a rat. What a memorable experience! It’s a shame my school didn’t use this fully. Just think what could have been achieved:
- Photos of the snake could have been taken and sent to all teachers
- Teachers could show the students the photo and link it to curriculum areas.
- For example – The serpent in the garden that tempted Eve (Religious Education), an analysis of this snake species and it’s global distribution (Biology and Geography), adjectives used to describe this snake, such as ‘slithering’, ‘creeping’, ‘demonic’ and ‘scaly’ (English language).
- After the snake had been captured by the professionals who were sent in, it could have been contained in a glass tank and students could be allowed to visit the snake safely for a few days before it was taken to it’s new home. Great for primary kids!
Where were you when 9/11 happened? I bet you remember – of course you do (if you were alive and conscious then). Unexpected events etch their engravings deep into the subconscious memory, allowing recall to take place decades after the event has happened. Surely, then, it is foolish not to make the most of the unexpected, if safe and practical to do so.
#3 – Outdoor Learning is not just for Science teachers
As we’ve already seen, many curriculum areas can be supported in the outdoor school environment.
Are you teaching IGCSE German? Take a walk around the school and get your students to identify key items, such as leaves, bricks, walls, grass and trees, in German. Maybe you’re teaching a History lesson about Offa’s Dyke path – why not get your kids to build a mini-dyke on the school field? How about mathematics? – Well geometry and shapes burst to life in both the built and natural environments.
In short, there are always ways to use the school environment in your subject area. Build opportunities into your Schemes of Work and planning documents, book spaces in advance (e.g. the school field) to avoid clashes and be creative!
#4 Your school environment provides space
Many of the learning games I use frequently in class, such as corners and vocabulary musical chairs (shown below), require lots of space. Why not take the kids outside to play these games from time to time? It’ll make the content more memorable and you’ll avoid problems such as trips and falls, which can sometimes happen in a cluttered classroom.
Try doing a QR code treasure hunt around your school too! It’s great fun!
#5: Embrace the opportunities offered by field trips and residentials
Sometimes the best way to benefit from the great outdoors is to completely leave the confines of the school premises with your students. If you’re asked to go on a residential or field trip, or are responsible for planning one, see this as a tremendous opportunity to enrich various curriculum areas.
With this kind of event, individual subject teachers are almost never consulted on what kinds of activities they would like to see happen. This is unfortunate. Try to involve all members of the teaching team in the planning process, so that maximum benefit can be made. Field trips and residentials often provide the perfect environment to get coursework done, for example, and are great for project-based work.
Outdoor learning does not have be outdoors, in terms of being outside school. Find opportunities to use the school environment to enrich various curriculum areas
Use the unexpected: Caught in a downpour? – go and collect some rainwater and test the pH, or use it as a symbol of cleansing in Religious Education, or talk about precipitation in Geography. The unexpected can often offer opportunities for serious long-term knowledge retention.
Use the vast space that your school environment provides to play learning games and explore the richness offered within the school grounds.
Plan field trips and residentials fully, so that key curriculum areas are enriched.