Psst, teachers… what springs to mind when you hear the word 'classroom'?

We like this definition: a classroom is a learning space. That is:

It needn’t have four walls and a ceiling.

Many of us, however, still confuse 'classroom' with 'indoor room'. And while indoor learning is indeed the norm, the tide is turning. More and more schools are embracing the evidence about the multitude of benefits of outdoor learning, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.

Even so, many teachers struggle to see how they could possibly take their lessons outside as a matter of routine. Sometimes, they simply don’t know how to plan or what to do. Or they’re worried about safety, about what parents might say. What about behaviour? Isn’t it a waste of time when there’s a monumental curriculum to be got through? Then there’s risk assessments, the rain…

Re-working those barriers

Fear not! Help is at hand. The trick is to re-think what look like barriers in a way that works for you, your pupils and your school. Here are some from education expert Heather Coe to get you going:

1: You Don’t Need a Forest or Expensive School Trip

No nearby nature? No green playground? No money to visit nature reserves? The trick here is to forget about rivers and parks, rolling hills and meadows. Nature is everywhere. Look for the spider in the door frame, the wood lice under the rocks, the dandelions growing in paving cracks, the ragged verge by the fence, the worms by the tree. There you go! Nature!

Better still, this is the kind of nature that’s the most 'real', in terms of education, because it shows children just how closely their own lives are entangled with those of other species. That’s not just biology, it’s philosophy!

2: You Don’t Need to be an Expert

Teachers often tell us they just don’t know names, facts… stuff. But it doesn’t really matter if you can’t tell a bumblebee from a magpie (well, actually, that would be quite awful, but you get the gist). In fact, by abandoning the idea that you need to dispense information, you can help children direct their own learning, and that’s powerful stuff.

Here’s what one teacher said: “Children lead our activities and what they might want to do—because it’s not about my agenda, it’s about their agenda and their learning. When I see an opportunity for going more in-depth in their learning, expanding their knowledge, then I can kind of jump in there and use that as a springboard to move onto something else.”

3. You Don’t Need Four Walls to Deliver the Curriculum

For most schools, says Coe, the playground has come to be confused as the place where children take a break from learning. You sit indoors to learn. And you go outside to play. Disrupt that thought immediately! Outdoor learning shouldn’t be something 'special' or 'different'. It’s just learning. Just like Serena Williams is not a 'female athlete' – she’s an athlete.

“Rather than relying on worksheets… and new technologies, teachers can turn to the flora, fauna, and elements of the local environment as tools to help deliver and uncover the curriculum,” says Coe.

One teacher shared an anecdote about how, while she was sitting under a tree reading a story to her pupils, one of the children heard a woodpecker. They interrupted the lesson so that the little girl could try and tell her classmates about this, seizing on a perfect – and unplanned – opportunity for language development and communication skills.

4. Health and Safety – Involve the Children

Get your pupils to help identify hazards and assess physical risk. What will you do it if rains? (What’s the weather forecast?) If someone gets stung by nettles? (Why do nettles sting?) How can they work out if it’s safe to climb a tree? Once again, there’s a brilliant knock-on effect. Coe says, “…planning for safety and success involves the creation of a community of care where safety is the responsibility of everyone involved.”

Are you planning to re-think the idea of your 'classroom'?

Please let us know how you get on! We’d love to hear from you.

Coe, H. 2016. From Excuses to Encouragements: Confronting and overcoming the barriers to early childhood outdoor learning in Canadian schools. Journal of Childhood Studies.

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