School Improvement & Development Conference 2023: Book your early-bird place

Creative Outdoor Learning

Most schools now have well established outdoor provision for their early years, I recall its introduction well, whilst I was completing my PGCE many moons ago now. Then as an NQT moving to the heady heights of Year 3 with all my Early Years practice raring to go, I replicated this, to the shock of a mature and traditional staff and head teacher, in a small village school.

On a windy field, in all seasons, in all weathers we went hunting for worms for our wormery, released flies we had hatched, buried a time capsule, enjoyed books in the sunshine, experimented with capacity and stood outside in the autumn rain. Such was my understanding that being outdoors benefitted my high achieving pupils, alongside those struggling to succeed in any area of the curriculum. With nothing but grass and fresh air we thrived together. Sounds like something from Enid Blyton? It was! Sustained shared conversations, laughter (shocking I know!), a sense of community, awe and wonder (think back to the 80’s) and returning to the classroom with a sense of successful deep learning together. Mastery? Well yes, I mean experiences that enabled children to understand concepts, to see and feel and think and question and challenge and reiterate and articulate and learn.

It was then much later, in a much less idyllic setting that I developed this even further. As an inclusion manager faced with sadly, the more familiar sights of emotionally damaged and even broken children, unable to sit in the same room for hours on end with a piece of paper and pencil to record every second of the day. I was repeatedly called to aid colleagues, from scenes of upturned tables and chairs and fear. A child at crisis point again, unable to conform and demonstrating this in the only way he or she knew how. But what to do? Swift removal with calm words, but to where another room? And how to help, calm down and return the child to this?

As is all too familiar the original school building had been added to numerous times which made Team Teach manoeuvres impossible through the maze of corridors and endless double doors, so an outdoor exit seemed initially the easiest and safest option for all. Taking a raging child outdoors, had I ever seen this before? The possibility of escape was high, I could see the paperwork piled up ahead. However, to my amazement from the ‘caring c’ position I immediately felt this boy’s shoulders physically drop, his muscles loosen and although still uttering expletives, we’d made progress. Re-entering the building, ‘locked down’ as is the norm now, was going to be tricky – I hadn’t thought of that! So it was probably by luck more than good judgement that the shell of an old garden suggested itself. Here he could be released and he could move, clear his head, take stock. He stormed around for a while, stood with his face in a corner and cried for some time. A small distraction, some mint thriving in an old herb bed brought his attention back to the here and now. We rubbed it, picked it and even ate it (‘What, with no risk-assessment?’ I hear you cry!) and although this took a great deal of patience and time, I’d made a link I hadn’t thought possible, I had stirred something within him. I sensed it.

Knowing that children whose earliest years having little or no sensory stimulation as Robert Valliere attests, means their cerebral cortex is not ‘wrinkled’ as in a well-developed child, I felt I had struck gold. Valliere cites Romanian orphans as an example (I certainly felt like I had a number of those on my radar). I had a distinct feeling of hope not only for this child but for our 12 LAC pupils, sever SEND pupils, our children on the verge of being taken into care, thank goodness, I had found a way forward.

You’re thinking Secret Garden I know, but it really was! The abandoned garden became the Inclusion Team’s saviour. With a group of open-minded and enthusiastic support staff, we donned out wellies, took up our spades and exchanged a small inclusion room for a thriving (yes we grew, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans and potatoes) space, created and owned by those most vulnerable. It provided us with a purposeful space, for those unable to socialise on a playground, so lunchtime inclusion clubs were the envy of all ‘normal’ pupils. These children had a focus, a role, a purpose and a meaning and they were getting dirty, experiencing all those sensations they had missed out on, we were beginning to fill the gaps and they were developing. ‘A miracle!’ I hear some of you mock. Well no, children still struggled in class, yes we had a couple of attempts to clear the perimeter fence and a trowel launched in anger left a bruise. But we developed a caring community, a sense of team amongst those who’s natural tendancy was to bite one another, a value to their lives, something to be proud of. And the staff. Being outdoors supported us in the often overwhelming mental challenge of working full time in such a role. We were able to see the progress, laugh with them when they fell in the mud and take a deep breath when we needed it.

And yes, I can’t say that the outbursts ever went away completely, they weren’t ever going to. But having been brought into the inclusion room where the harvest from the garden was being stored, that first pupil raged and started about his routine with the furniture. The funny thing was, the table holding all the vegetables he had helped sow, nurture and pick was left untouched, in a room of utter chaos.

Outdoor Learning should not solely be reserved for those aged 4-5. It should be for every child of every age and every ability. Accessing natural stimuli engages with the cerebral cortex and supports cognitive pathways. TT’s Outdoor Learning is a refreshing look at how all schools is whatever situation can thrive with the most limited of spaces, to deliver curriculum and/or inclusion. Learning, on whatever platform it needs to take.


Find out more about TT Education's Creative Outdoor Learning CPD course/INSET here