Teach Outdoors – Coffee Conversations

During Lockdown 1.0, we started a series of Coffee Conversations with individuals and organisations we had met online – either in the UK or across the globe – via webinars or break out groups on Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts. Many of these conversations have been with people we would never have had the opportunity to connect with. When two trusted friends and colleagues signpost you to the same person in two days, you know you are in for a treat. So welcome Jo Clanfield – it’s time to find out more about Teach Outdoors.

Teach Outdoors – the Early Years

Having started my teaching career in Key Stage 2, I took the giant leap to move from Year 5/6 to Reception class.  It was a huge learning curve, but it was the first time that I questioned how we teach children and how children learn.  The EYFS approach made a lot more sense and there was flexibility to meet the needs of the whole child.  As a member of SLT, I began questioning why we inherently have this approach in early years. Yet as children progress through their education it vanishes. Do children somehow change?

Around the same time, I started teaching small intervention/support groups. This allowed me to identify gaps in skills/knowledge for specific children.  It soon became apparent that the children shared one thing in common.  They hated the thought of learning before it had even begun. They hated being in the classroom. It was these children who were slumped in their chairs, looking totally deflated when the teacher introduced a writing task.

Naturally, I began to think around the problem and noticed that a lot of the early years ‘reluctant’ indoor learners, nearly always accessed learning through the outdoor provision.  With this in mind, I looked at the specific skills the children needed to learn and thought of ways to make it active and fun outdoors.  When the older children were outside, I was amazed by the difference in their behaviour and their approach to learning. They started to participate more in lessons with a newfound confidence and progress was made.

So, this is where my passion for outdoor learning began, and it led to me to explore different ways of incorporating curriculum linked outdoor learning into lessons.  

Building Blocks

I recall taking a KS2 class for an outdoor learning session. The learning focus was persuasive letter writing.  The children had been outside previously creating scenes for a story setting.  The scenes happened to be small structures where ‘magical folk’ lived.  Now, the day those children went to the same area and found the magic folk had had their houses destroyed by invading giants they were hooked.  When they found a letter from the giants saying it was their land and they had to leave, the ‘buzz’ began to happen.  They were relating to the narrative, feeling the emotions, the empathy and thinking about both sides of the argument. The questions began to pour out and the conversations started.

Even the most reluctant learners got involved because they were given first-hand learning experiences that encouraged them to discuss, hear related vocabulary and feel the emotions themselves.  When I returned them to the classroom the teacher saw the ‘buzz’ from the outdoor session, and she used their enthusiasm to scaffold the learning.

The Journey so far

At first, I started running successful outdoor sessions, throughout my school. However, this led to the teacher’s perception that outdoor learning was an additional extra that they couldn’t provide and only I could.  I remember the day so clearly when I discussed the potential of whole school outdoor learning with my headteacher.  She turned around and said, ‘It sounds lovely Jo, but how does it help the scores on the doors?’  So, the hours of research began. I built the evidence I needed to enable me to start implementing a whole school approach to outdoor learning – firstly in my own school and then supporting other schools.

Supporting schools 

After working with different teachers/schools, reviewing research and refining the training, it became clear that my support had to address the following points for outdoor learning to have a positive impact:

  • It needs to be a whole school approach, with SLT onboard, integrated into raising standards agenda – with strong curriculum links. 
  • Teachers need to be given the permission, confidence and skills to know why and how they could take the curriculum outdoors.
  • There needs to be procedures in place to look at specific barriers and strategies to address them.

For many reasons Covid-19 has generated more interest in outdoor learning. With restrictions in place, it resulted in the development of my online training, Taking the Curriculum Outdoors: A Whole School Approach.  It is training for the whole school to attend and it allows time for lots of discussion, hands-on activities and encourages the school to identify their goals and intentions.  It’s by creating this agreed understanding and linking it to raising standards agendas that integrated outdoor learning becomes a sustainable, ‘normal part’ of teaching and learning. In addition, it encourages schools to utilise their outdoor space, therefore making use of the resources they already have in place.

Supporting community groups

I’m a huge advocate for schools and communities utilising the outdoor space they have access to.  It is for this reason that I became a Beach School leader.  At the time, Forest School was starting to become popular but very few people had even heard of Beach School.  Having strong links to the Welsh coast, I trained as a Beach School leader and set up Dyfi Beach Rangers.  Over the years, Beach Rangers has become a community focused group where the main objectives are to provide activities, resources and the space for children and their families to interact with and learn about the coastal environment.  The natural environment is the perfect setting for families to communicate with each other. The smiles throughout the sessions are testament to the benefit nature can have.

Looking Ahead

Outdoor learning has so many benefits to learners and teachers alike.  These benefits will be even more important as all children return to classroom teaching from Covid-19 restrictions. The evidence is clear that being physically active, connecting to nature, promoting positive well-being support our most vulnerable groups.  Outdoor learning is the medium in which all of these priorities can be developed and provided.  As educational professionals we also need to consider the expectations of ‘catch up curriculums’:

  • How are these going to be implemented whilst meeting the social and emotional needs of the children? 
  • We know children make more progress when they have high levels of well-being and involvement. How can we support children to reconnect when they return to school?
  • Will this support be sustainable for years to come?

Working – and Playing – Together

With this in mind, I have started collaborating with some fantastic people and organisations in the hope of offering a ‘pick and mix’ style to training, support and resources.  In this way SLT can introduce outdoor learning and then focus on additional training, targeting specific areas of development in their school.  Every school is unique, and my aim is to offer support from a range of people: Dr Katherine Forsey for STEM support outdoors, dyslexic specialist teachers, horticultural therapists and more.  

With teacher workload increasing, I want to create a space which shares fantastic resources and services, such as Tagtiv8 and Northampton Town Football Community Trust.  There are no two schools the same. Therefore, there isn’t and shouldn’t be one size fits all when it comes to outdoor learning school development and support. Providing different options enables genuinely sustainable outdoor learning. This will support the development of the whole child and result in positive impacts.

Connecting with Teach Outdoors

We hope you ‘get’ Teach Outdoors in the way that we do. Before creating Tagtiv8, our founder specialised in Environmental Education – Education About, Through and For the Environment. They are definitely a ‘Force for Good’.

Our call to action is contact Teach Outdoors and explore the opportunities for yourselves and your children.

Twitter: @teach_outdoors
Facebook: @teachoutdoors
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Email: info@teachoutdoors.co.uk

Call: 07961 270883