Progression in Using Places for Learning and Playing Outdoors

29 December 2011 · 4 comments

in General Commentary, International

At this time of year, I think I tend to be quite reflective about where I’ve come from and what the future may hold. This year is particularly poignant as five years ago, I stopped working as a head teacher, with little idea about my future.



Since then I’ve progressed quite significantly in my thinking around the impact of being outside and using the variety of places, spaces and experiences (planned and spontaneous). It used to be a jolly nice thing. Now I believe it’s a fundamental right and necessity. With the best will in the world, classroom based learning does not provide authentic learning experiences about the real world. Digital technology can help us connect with others around the world and open our eyes to all sorts. Nevertheless it lacks the multi-sensory experience of managing the weather, unexpected happenings and the connection to nature that we as humans intrinsically crave and seek. We are change-seekers. And we get our kicks from changing events in the natural world and celebrate the constants that come hand-in-hand with this.

However like most educators I’m on a learning continuum when it comes to exploring the potential of creating and using outdoor experiences. Progression is a theme that naturally dovetails with taking learning outdoors.

Firstly, as creatures of habit we all tend to favour a particular place. At the moment, as a matter of convenience it tends to be the school grounds. And within the grounds, my classes tend to use a wildlife garden and a far corner up a hill.

At one school, we spent huge amounts of time going off-site simply because the grounds were too small and the local community had attractive amenities including a stream, river, pond, railway, village hall and small woodland. We also had a lot of time visiting other schools and doing things further afield.

In terms of place, there is progression in terms of being able to flexibly use all the places available to us. Here in Scotland, it is rare for young children to have overnight or residential experiences. Yet in a number of progressive school I encountered in North America, the overnight camping trip at the start of a new year is considered really important to allow new children and their parents to settle into school and also as an opportunity for recent leavers to re-visit and share their experiences of moving on to a bigger school.

We also have a big focus on “Forest School” activities. Whilst woodlands are wonderful places, the opportunity to explore other habitats can add value. This is recognised in Sweden where the outdoor nurseries and schools tend to be located near woods, an orchard (for eating fruit), pond or lake (ice skating, paddling and pond dipping) and a hill (skiing and sledging).

What cannot be over-stated is the value of repeated visits to different local places. Throughout the year, this allows children to witness the seasonal changes that happen. This can include cultural and community changes in urban areas too. For example, shop windows change according to different events. There’s Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Halloween and Christmas that all get “showcased” by shops in Scotland. Aside from observing changes, re-visiting local places gives children opportunities to do things in a different way with different expectations and involving different people.

Walking known routes helps children identify key features in their local community and develop an affinity with the place in which they live. The value of walking to and from school is huge. Often it’s a chance for children to play en-route with their friends. As a young child, although I didn’t especially enjoy the afternoon walks with my mum, I liked the chance to run up to each of the gates at the side of the road. I knew which ones were good for swinging on and which weren’t.

Basic knowledge and skills also arise. I remember once accompanying some 13-yr olds on a mapping activity. The teenagers in my group did not know that the streets all had names which could be found at the end of each street. They were astounded when they realised that houses on one side of the street were numbered odd and the ones on the opposite side were all even numbers. Without frequent opportunities to walk around, concepts that were assume become second nature to people, aren’t acquired.

As my step-father tells me, “Where there’s no sense, there’s no feeling.” When we lose our sense of place, we lose our feelings for place. We lose out on our place in the world.

The photos in this post all come from this case study I wrote about Seattle Nature Pre-school whose daily walks help children develop strong links with their local area and a great sense of place!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

kvnmcl December 29, 2011 at 22:08

These may seem musings to you Julia but they are an essential read for every teacher that continues to confine learning to an indoor environment and only occasionally explores outdoors when it is dry.
Wonderful ideas as ever.

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cherib December 30, 2011 at 06:50

Juliet, every time I read your musings/writings I am inspired to GET OUTSIDE with my students! I live just south of Seattle, WA, so I’m going to check out those yellow pants…I bet the store was REI.

Thank you!! Thank you!!

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Juliet Robertson December 30, 2011 at 09:30

Thank for the kind feedback. You are correct – they are REI yellow pants – cheap and effective. I bought a black pair for my son and are now part of my bank of clothing for children.

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Kierna C December 30, 2011 at 16:17

Brilliant post as ever Juliet and you’re right most outdoor learning experiences are felt to have to take place off the school campus. In the past I have gone to organised activities where the children are not actually allowed to be free in the environment. I look forward to seeing where else you will take the learning in 2012

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