BtC Outside and In: What’s special about the outdoors?

22 January 2012 · 0 comments

in General Commentary, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Whole School

This post is the second in a series that looks at the statements outlined in the vision statement for outdoor learning in the document Building your Curriculum: Outside and In. The second statement is…


All children are able to experience and enjoy the essential and special nature of being outdoors.

This is a statement which can be discussed amongst staff at any primary or secondary school or pre-school setting. It can aid understanding about why children need opportunities as part of their learning to be outside.

Being outside should be more than simply any old indoor activity taken outside. For example, taking a maths textbook to a table outside is not truly capitalising on the outdoor environment and the benefits of playing and learning out there. Jan White sums this up beautifully in this article, by stating:

“…we must hold in our minds that the outdoors is different to indoors: these differences are what makes it special and important. We need to be clear about how the outdoors differs from the indoors, why children benefit from being outdoors and how the outdoors responds so well to the ways in which (young) children learn. This thinking then gives us the key to for what to provide and how to plan for the outdoors… The special nature of the outdoors fits the way (young) children want to be, behave, learn and develop in so many ways. Perhaps this is why children love to be outside so much. It certainly gives a strong rationale and justification for developing rich outdoors provision and building in as much access to it as possible.”

Please note that the brackets around the adjective ‘young’ are mine. I feel this advice applies to children and young people of all ages.

So what makes being outside essential and special? I’m sure if you asked your colleagues, friends and parents they would come up with a similar (and better) list to mine…

The weather and seasons

Even in an urban jungle, with only a concrete outside patch, the weather impacts on every outdoor activity. Children and young people can experience the weather wherever they live. It is ever-changing and creates a multi-sensory experience. In Scotland we are lucky enough to have four distinct seasons that add variety in terms of nature, weather, colour and amount of daylight available.

Multi-sensory learning

Beyond weather and the seasons, other factors create a multi-sensory learning experience. The different surfaces underfoot, the range of natural settings available even within an urban location and the smells, sights, sounds and feelings associated with being outside are unique. For example, taking children on a blindfold walk through their school grounds will create quite an impact. The review sessions can be powerful after such an experience. Plan and provide for all the senses and don’t just limit this to a sensory or wildlife garden.


This is about the range of flora and fauna within, across and between species, habitats and climate zones. It is a sad fact that children are more likely to know about different animals in other countries than native Scottish wildlife. I regularly meet children who do not recognise daisies or dandelions. Our native plants provide folklore, an alternative perspective on history and help wildlife flourish. There are also many little games and activities associated with our native plants. For example, making daisy chains and tattooing our hands with the milky sap of dandelions. Looking at a photo of a child blowing a dandelion clock is a far cry from experiencing this for real.

A sense of freedom and space

This is so often forgotten by adults but very important to children. Several years ago I did a small scale research project with 200 P6 children in Aberdeen. When asked what made an activity different when it took place outside, “freedom” and “space” were the most frequent answers given without any prompts. If you show children a range of photos of school grounds, it is interesting to see which prove the most popular. The ones where open spaces can be seen are often picked. Hmmm….

It’s fun!

I know this may not be a number one priority for the Scottish Government, but in EVERY course I facilitate where reasons for learning outside are discussed, the participants put this down as a key component. Teachers know, and children too, that learning needs to be enjoyable. I look forward to the day when our school inspectors rate the fun factor as well as attainment levels in every school. I bet there’s a correlation!

Physical activity

Children need to be able to move, run about, climb, walk and learn with their whole bodies. Research from the Forestry Commission Scotland demonstrates that children are more physically active on days where they undertake Forest School than on days when they have a PE lesson. One of my saddest experiences, was witnessing an 11-yr old child unable to walk up a small hill as he had never had this opportunity before visiting the outdoor centre where I worked.

Developing a sense of place and belonging

This is about our society valuing children and also children learning to love and value the places where they live and belong. The only way to do this is to get children out and about in their local area seeing and getting involved in the life of a place. It’s also about the community learning that children’s presence – being seen and heard – can be a positive indicator of social and community togetherness.

Developing a connection with nature and natural spaces

Children will not learn nor understand important concepts such as sustainable living and climate change without frequent contact within nature. Ecoliteracy can only be developed through first hand experiences of playing in wild places. If we want children to develop pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours then ensuring children have free play opportunities in nature is needed.

I know this post just gives a taste of the possibilities. What do you think? Some useful reflective questions include:

  • What makes being outside special and unique for you and your children?
  • How can we capitalise on the use of our school grounds and local area within the time children spend in school regardless of the age and stage they are at?
  • How can we use the unique and special nature of the outdoors to provide better learning experiences?
  • What do we need to do to improve our school grounds to ensure it adds value to the learning and teaching within our school?

The next post in this series is “We value the contribution of all staff to ensure children maximise the potential of the outdoors.”

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