What makes learning outside different from being indoors? If you ask this question to children, many of them will refer to the sense of freedom and availability of more space.
For me, I learned several years ago, to view empty tarmac spaces and featureless playing fields as full of potential and possibility. The mindset shift happened at a specific moment in time. I was watching a TV programme where two Aboriginal women were being interviewed. The presenter asked them what they saw in the patch of “wasteland” bush where the interview was taking place. The two women looked at each other and laughed. They told the presenter “You may see waste ground. We see one big free supermarket.”
When developing a creative curriculum, being anywhere outside is a natural place to begin. This article has a selection of activities which can work in any space. I find it helpful to consider outdoor learning as any learning which takes places outside. Rather than get hung up about what is and isn’t “outdoor learning” focus on the quality of the lesson and whether being outside is the best context for the specific lesson or focus. Furthermore, try not to treat outdoor learning as a subject. Instead, integrate it into your current timetable.
1) Circle games – PSHE
These are any games you know and love from inside. With little children, it may be ones like “Duck, duck, goose.” Older children can enjoy more complex team games. Circle games help children to acclimatise to being outside and to remember that behaviour expectations are the same as indoors. So a structured game with clear rules helps.
2) Find Something Interesting – Literacy
This challenge is very open-ended. I use it to help set working boundaries in an outdoor space and to establish what is okay to collect and what isn’t. It is advisable to have a size limit, e.g. no bigger than your hand; that no live animals to be brought back or dangerous items like broken glass. Weeds are usually alright to pick. The beautiful flowers grown in a container should be left alone. Once children have found their item, they can write a poem in a structured format about it at the working level of your class.
3) Finding a space to be – critical thinking and problem solving
Challenge children to find a place outside which is as far away as possible from others in the class within a restricted area. This takes some thinking about! They will need to decide what tools can be used to measure the spaces between children. Initially, children want to go to the perimeter of a space. Is this the most effective approach? Are grid patterns more effective? Once children have established a system, then they can find a place to be outside that is away from others for working alone on tasks.
4) Mathematical pictures
Working alone or in pairs, the children have to create pictures which demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of key concepts. For example, you may have a list of shapes to be included and features such as right, acute, obtuse, straight and reflex angles highlighted. Have bags of cones, shells, sticks and stones available for children to use if you have a blank outdoor space. This is a useful assessment activity.
5) Circuit training – PE
Encourage your class to develop a set of circuits which can be undertaken outside. As much as possible, use features of the school grounds rather than bringing oodles of PE equipment outside. For example, do a series of step-ups on steps, look for walls which can be used for push-offs, playground markings for creative approaches to star jumps. This can kickstart the introduction of Parkour.
6) Love your school grounds – geography and citizenship
Before going outside, ask your children to create and decorate two hearts, one large and one small. Attach a piece of ribbon or string to each heart. In your school grounds, ask each child to place the large heart in the place they like the most. Ask them to record or capture their thoughts about this place in some way. This could be completed digitally through the use of audio boo, Fotobabble or other apps. Or it could be by writing their thoughts on luggage tags or a piece of card. Next, ask children to put their little heart in a place which requires a little more love. This may be a tiny place or a bigger area. The children should capture their thoughts about how to make this space a little better. What can they personally do?
7) One-metre micro hikes – geography/literacy
Each child is given a 1m piece of string. Outside the children have to decide where best to place their string to create an interesting adventure for a tiny person. A puddle can become a huge lake to cross; a stone is a cliff face. This works particularly well if your class have one-metre strips of paper to record the travels of their tiny person as the mapping becomes life-sized. You can use this exercise to revise key landscape features and map symbols.
8) Hold an outdoor assembly – Religious Education
With the summer term upon us, outdoor assemblies are a lovely way to undertake an act of worship which can be more interactive than indoors. Keep the hymns simple and stick to well-known ones. Focus on an outdoor theme such as stones and their significance in religion so that environmental features can be directly linked to and used as part of the programme. Create a class prayer linked to the theme.
9) Investigate shadows – Science
As an interdisciplinary project shadows have a lot of potential in any outdoor space. Have a look at the ideas and links in my Shadow Play blog post and use the Photo Booth app to capture shadows in alternative ways using the X-ray and thermal choices. In terms of science, it is possible to map the sun’s movement throughout the day and use this to identify the direction of the compass. An interesting investigation also arises at the time when the length of one’s shadow matches your body height. Is this true for everyone in the class at the same time? If so, then is it possible to accurately measure the height of very tall features such as trees or lampposts on the basis of their shadow length?
10) Chalk art – Art & Design
The visual elements all work well outside. Each child can create a one-metre square. Inside their square, they draw nine straight lines which must intersect or meet two other lines. Next, what is the minimum number of colours each child can use in their work to colour in the square whilst ensuring that no two adjacent spaces contain the same colour? Have a look at a political map, as an illustration, to see how this is done.
Children love the outdoors, but schools can be guilty of confining pupils to the restrictions of the classroom far too often, yet in this article by Juliet Robertson, it is possible for any teacher to enhance learning outdoors in any setting. First published in the May 2014 Edition of UKEdMagazine (click here to view article), this article provides ten great ideas to enjoy the fresh air, whilst helping learning at any level. The online article was updated in 2019 by the UKEd Editorial team in accordance with policy and website changes.