Ahh, it’s that time of year again. With September rolls around school Open Day season, and if you’re a prospective parent working through a checklist of requirements, it’s likely that outdoor space is on there as a deal-breaker – after all, if we’ve learnt anything post-Covid, it’s the importance of nature and outdoor learning for happy, well-balanced children. It’s not just for littlies, either – having space to explore and exercise is key throughout the school lives of our kids. But how can you tell if a school is making the most of its outdoor offering?
Moulsford School (above) in South Oxon is well-known for its gorgeous rural setting and Swallows and Amazons outlook (the kids have their own slice of river and island to play on), so who better than Head Ben Beardmore-Gray to offer an insight into the six things parents should have on their radar to make sure outdoor learning at prospective or current schools is more than a cute turn of phrase? Over to you, Ben.
Check the indoor/outdoor flow
At Moulsford, we are very much of the view that the outside is an extension to the classroom and, where there is clear benefit to being outdoors, there is very little to stop us taking our teaching outside across our fields and woodland, so our pupils, from 3 years old upwards, go out in all weathers (appropriately dressed of course).
This month (Sept 22) we’ve just opened the doors of our new state-of-the-art, purpose-built Pre-School and Pre-Prep, which has been overtly planned to allow learning and educational plan to flow from indoors to outdoors. This is because it’s integral to child development at this stage. Removing four walls removes any limitations to creative play; a set of planks and crates could be a castle to one child while it becomes a pirate ship to another. To build and play in these worlds, the children need to communicate clearly with each other. Importantly, subconsciously, they will also be dynamically risk assessing their environment and adjusting things to ensure their own safety. These skills are invaluable to develop from that early age right through into adulthood.
Ask for the outdoor learning agenda
Firstly, don’t be afraid to ask for a nursery or school to share its own outdoor learning agenda – they should all have one. Currently you may be surprised to know that there are no formal requirements for outdoor learning to be a part of a school curriculum, though it’s recognised by the Council for Outdoor Learning as an invaluable tool to help children reach their full potential by ‘re-motivating children’, ‘supporting improved standards back inside the classroom’ and ‘helping to improve social mobility’, particularly following Covid and the isolation many children experienced.
Every setting can offer outdoor learning, though some will have facilities that lend themselves more, so expectations need to be realistic. That said, it’s worth asking some detail how lessons are taught outdoors, whether it be for a measures lesson in maths, a history battle brought to life or an art lesson in a thoughtful and reflective space.
Don’t fear ‘learning injuries’
There is more to outdoor learning than just running around or sitting under a tree listening to a story (although both of these things are hugely valuable) and parents should also be guided to expect ‘learning injuries’ as more and more time is spent outside. These are not dramatic injuries but more bumps, cuts and grazes. Children should not be wrapped up in cotton wool and removed from riskier situations for fear of hurting themselves but should experience these minor injuries in order to build their resilience and to adapt their actions to avoid mishaps the next time. Through risk assessment and a good understanding of the culture of Health & Safety, staff gain the confidence to allow children to be exposed to risk.
Look at the school curriculum
Being at one with nature is such an important part of growing up in our modern world. Now more than ever children should be taught to respect the world in which they live in order to help preserve it for future generations.
At Moulsford, Forest School forms an integral part of our curriculum, with regular visits for Pre-School and Pre-Prep children throughout the year. A base in nearby woods provides the perfect space for boys to roam as freely as possible and initiate their own play and learning as well as manage their own risk, through activities such as tree climbing, rope swinging, bug hunting and den building. As they progress through Moulsford, Forest School remains on the agenda, with trips for older year groups culminating in an overnight ‘survival’ night as part of the Year 8 Leavers post-exam programme.
Check for outdoor Awards programmes
Most senior schools run the Duke of Edinburgh Awards from 13 years onwards, but our view is there’s no reason not to start something at Junior/Prep level, so it’s worth checking with any prospective schools what they offer. We run our own Moulsford Award after-school programme, which encourages the Prep school boys to choose options from a wide range of activities grouped into Healthy Living, Performance and the Arts, Community/Service, Self-Development and Adventure, and the majority of the activities take place outdoors. The Moulsford Award is designed to encourage boys to try new things, and help in our aim to provide a rounded education, whilst developing and celebrating the success of each boy as an individual.
Ask for details on physical activity targets
Research published earlier this year by Bristol University highlighted how children’s physical activity levels fell below national guidelines in the wake of the pandemic. Physical activity is so important for children’s health and happiness, with the UK Chief Medical Officers recommending that all children and young people should take part in an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day, and limit the amount of time they spend being sedentary. Outdoor learning can contribute greatly to this aim, and should be high on all schools’ agendas, so don’t be afraid to ask prospective schools for details on how many hours a week the children are learning, playing and moving outdoors – it’s a marker that will quickly give you an accurate snap-shot of the school’s attitude to outdoor learning and play.