School News investigates why it’s such a good idea to take your lessons beyond the oval…
The value of outdoor learning
Education outside the classroom is a core part of schooling. Its value is well established in Australia, with research increasingly showing psycho-social, wellbeing, and academic benefits to outdoor learning experiences, which can encompass short lessons outdoors to a month-long overseas trip.
During the pandemic, teachers increased their use of outdoor environments to be able to teach lessons while socially distancing.
Teaching in green spaces like this has noticeable impacts on the development of children’s self-identity, social skills and general improvements to wellbeing and mental health, as outlined in a 2022 systematic review published in Frontiers in Public Health, on the benefits of “Getting Out of the Classroom and Into Nature”.
The study concluded that outdoor learning in nature “should be incorporated into every child’s school experience with reference to their local context” and that more guidance should be given to teachers on “how natural settings can be used effectively for learning”.
Students respond well to re-contextualised learning, and this can take many shapes. For instance, an outdoor learning experience could mean sitting outside to write a journal entry, tending to vegetables in the school garden, playing interstate sport, or going on an international tour.
Whatever the experience, outdoor learning provides students with the opportunity to do and learn new things and is recognised by teachers as an important way to build knowledge and extend critical thinking skills.
Targeted outdoor learning experiences connected to specific learning areas are already prominent in many schools, particularly those connected to Health and Physical Education.
Outdoor learning activities connected to Science, Social Science, and the Arts are also popular, with some of the most common excursions for schools including field trips, visits to museums, zoos and wildlife centres, art galleries, historical sites and camps, as well as other activities like water sports and outdoor recreation activities, attending competitions and sporting events, ticketed theatre productions, music festivals, and science talks.
Getting support for teachers planning outdoor learning
The benefits of outdoor learning are clear to most teachers, so how can school leaders support them better to integrate outdoor learning into the school year?
Set aside clear days each term for outdoor learning activities, or schedule regular periods in the timetable to deliver outdoor learning sessions. Balancing outdoor learning loaded subjects with in-class subjects is crucial to minimise additional workload.
Regular outdoor learning sessions, excursions, activities, and trips, planned in advance of the school year or term can minimise workload demands while increasing benefits to students.
Moreover, outdoor learning providers are increasingly adept at being able to assist schools in the planning stage, staying up to date on changes in government guidelines and restrictions.
Schools can also facilitate outdoor learning around assessment periods to ease anxiety for students. Advance timetabling means schools can plan activities earlier, saving money on bookings.
For most schools, particularly primary schools travelling locally, the cost of outdoor learning experiences are usually covered by school or grant funding and/or passed on to caregivers. However, fundraising may be an option for larger or more specialised outdoor learning experiences.
School leadership should also prioritise outdoor learning at their schools by supporting staff with paperwork and by tackling concerns around health and safety legislation. Schools should be aware of the rigorous health and safety guidelines in place for outdoor learning as well as opportunities for professional development on safety and First Aid management available to teachers and school staff.
Schools can support teachers by facilitating these types of professional development and by making sure they have enough time and resources to complete paperwork during the planning stages of any trip.
To ensure any outdoor learning is culturally sensitive, schools should establish community connections and develop external learning programmes in partnership with Traditional Custodians of the lands upon which learning takes place, and school staff should model cultural appreciation and sensitivity for students and consider how to make outdoor learning plans more inclusive for students with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
Schools can also approach their state department about facilitating cultural competency training for staff ahead of planning cultural outdoor learning lessons.
External learning also enhances social skill development, which teachers have noticed slipped during lockdown, by drawing students together in new contexts outside the classroom, encouraging new friendships, and facilitating collaborative opportunities through projects and nature-based activities.