GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Comhairle Choitcheann Teagaisg na h-Alba

A swing of the pendulum

Fiona Jones, Teacher

Little children enjoying immersive learning of their environment, exploring the natural world, building concepts of science or selfhood from first principles - from physical experiences of weather and season, flora and fauna, mud and water and awe and wonder.

Yes, I’m writing about Outdoor Learning, which has recently gained capital letters. As a parent and as a teacher, I’m all in favour of natural-world experiences for children. I didn’t wait for the great theorists and leaders of education to ponderously decree that children need outdoor adventure to raise their SHANARRI index, for as soon as my children could walk they were following me through the woods, brandishing sticks and absorbing mud. It’s called childhood, and I saw it as my responsibility to enable it. To bring home and process clay into clumsy pots, to collect interesting stones, observe tadpoles, open rotten tree trunks to search for woodlice, to gather berries, explore disused quarries, make beach bonfires and clamber fallen trees. To explain to the Scottish police that I wasn’t homeless or dangerous, just a parent doing things that were good for my children.

Fostering adventurous behaviour

When my children started nursery and then school we walked both ways most days. In high school one of my children still walks the two miles home across the fields by choice, while the other prefers to go out by himself in the evening to watch bats hunting or deer grazing. Most of my children’s birthdays over the years have happened on the beach along from Ravenscraig Castle, burning deadwood and driftwood and sea-smoothed pieces of coal. (My stories of these experiences are scattered widely around the Internet, but most are accessible through my Twitter page, @FiiJ20).

All of this, for me, was a matter of parenting. Perhaps being a teacher deepened my determination to provide my own children with careful training and healthy experiences, but I hope that I would have had a strong parenting ethic regardless. However, in a society that has largely devolved parenting to institutions rather than families, it inevitably falls on schools to provide children with the best level of outdoor experience that may be logistically compatible with large, noisy and behaviourally diverse groups. So, as a teacher, I am eager to extend my Outdoor Education skills wherever opportunity and safety allow.

In my first year of teaching, many, many years ago, I tried taking my class for an occasional outdoor session in warm weather. (I gave up on this idea after a mother, observing from across the playground and beyond the school gates, complained that where her daughter was sitting, the sunlight reached her arm). More recently, as a supply teacher, I have been involved in embedded outdoor sessions at several different schools. In one place, the infant classes spent half of every Friday afternoon at the park adjoining the school, and I was astonished by the climbing ability of young children given weekly exposure to outdoor play equipment. At another school I have accompanied/assisted at a regular outdoor afternoon for P1 and P2 together: a mixture of creative activity (cooking, art, biodegradable crafts, etc.) and unstructured muddy scrambling between tree-roots, mud and thorn-bushes. I genuinely enjoyed it and was inspired to begin looking for lessons of my own that I might feel confident to lead outdoors.

Bravely I took the P1 class out for a short session of playground-chalk art. The unforeseen element was that the nursery walls and door provided a much better chalking surface than the ground, but that was easily washed off afterwards. A few weeks later I took the same class out for the grand release of our longsuffering garden snails. The unforeseen element in this case was a pleasant surprise: the snails had hidden a clutch of eggs at the bottom of their tank. I felt considerably anxious with a class outdoors, even just behind the school wall. But all of us survived except, perhaps, the embryonic snails, who will almost certainly have been eaten by birds and hedgehogs in the place where we left them.

Preparing for the great outdoors

In spite of my extensive outdoor play with my own children, I’m taking it slowly to build my confidence in outdoor teaching. I do see the swing of the pendulum away from physically coddling children as a good one in principle. The Outdoor Learning book I have just read and logged for my CPD (Dirty Teaching by Julia Robertson) comes close to claiming that almost any lesson, with almost any class, can be just as effectively delivered outdoors. The book spends far more time advising teachers how to dress themselves and how to cope with school doors than how to approach the real challenges of containing a behaviourally diverse group of children without tactile physical boundaries. If a child of impulsive tendencies decides to break ranks and chase heavily pregnant sheep, followed by his friends under the illusion that they can “stop him doing it”, what is the best course of action other than the inevitable nervous breakdown? If a child decides to give her class the slip for the sheer enjoyment of getting picked up by police car, must the teacher just up her dose of Prozac and carry on regardless? If all but five of your class have significant conceptual and behavioural needs (yes, I’ve had several classes of that description), shouldn’t you be allowed an increased adult-to-child ratio before being expected to take the class outside? These are issues that seriously need addressing at a time when unsupported inclusion is on the rise.

Bringing the outside in

Some years ago I was working in a school where teachers were supposed to implement Outdoor Learning. Convinced that if I took my particular class outside I would return with fewer children every time, I kept lessons in the classroom but brought in plants, snails, fish, tadpoles and woodlice and did what I could to teach about nature without going out into nature. To my relief, nobody from management approached me about it (possibly because I was temporary anyway). A teacher needs to be free to make his or her own risk assessment even in the face of school policy.

Outdoor opportunities are an important part of childhood, and in the absence of parental involvement with this vital aspect of parenting, I am glad that schools are investing in Outdoor Learning. However, schools and education authorities need to be careful how far the pendulum swings. If teachers are put under unsustainable levels of stress by across-the-board requirements to teach outdoors without adequate assistance; if the dangers of harm or of litigation over unforeseeable incidents threatens health and careers; this pendulum of ours will only swing again, back towards the indoors-only model. Let’s not let Outdoor Education join the ranks of the good intentions/pushed too far/quickly forgotten. Children’s outdoor experience is worth more than that. Teachers are worth more than that. Outdoor lessons need to be discretionary: encouraged, but not demanded; supported, but not forced.