When I ask children and young people what they like about learning outdoors, many cite “space and freedom” as a reason. It is a consistent theme across the ages and is also echoed by teachers. Every teacher knows the challenges of having to teach in a cramped space. I remember my Year 5 classroom being so small that there were no tables. We sat on the floor and used clipboards. Luckily we could break out into the general purpose space. This was in the Seventies.
Carina Brage, author of Teaching Technology Outdoors simply says, “The classroom is too small.” This got me thinking. I decided to undertake a little online research around the matter.
The classroom sizes in Scotland can be obtained from the 2014 document Determining Primary School Capacity. It recommends that 1.7 square metres should be allocated per pupil for a “class base.” So assuming that 33 children will be in a class, the minimum size should be 56.1 square metres. I note with interest that adults are not considered in this guidance. Vertical space is not mentioned but let’s allow 3m which would make the minimum class size 168.3 cubic metres.
I thought it would be interesting to compare this to our nearest biological relative, the chimpanzee and how the sizes of their cages compared. Humans and chimps are genetically similar and share up to 99.4% of their genetic structure.
I struggled to find precise information from the UK about enclosures for chimpanzees. However the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a US organisation has a care manual for chimpanzees. The size of indoor enclosures is discussed and 425 cubic metres is mentioned by one research study as minimum space for a group of 14 chimpanzees. This means that a chimp is entitled to just over 30 cubic metres of space and a child in a Scottish primary school is entitled to 5.1 cubic metres. Our classrooms are large enough to house 5 chimpanzees.
I am fascinated by this comparison. Chimps are our closest cousins. They grow to roughly the same size as humans and live for many years. In terms of pupil capacity, the Scottish guidance does advise on additional space such as gym halls, general purpose areas, etc. However even adding this extra space, it is obvious that most Scottish primary establishments provide significantly less space per pupil than zoos do per chimpanzee. This is before taking into consideration the school grounds and comparing this to the outdoor space chimpanzees can freely access.
Interestingly the most recent Scottish research around time spent on outdoor learning suggests that primary pupils spend an average of 30 minutes per week outside, during the month of May. It is probable that this average decreases in winter months. Likewise, those schools which insist on keeping children inside for wet playtimes means that the opportunities for children to experience the space and freedom of being outside are pretty small.
Next, extensive studies have been undertaken by animal behaviour specialists to observe behaviour and environment links. Thanks to this research, most British zoos make every effort to naturalise the cages to simulate the chimps’ natural environment and keep them calm, happy and sociable. However, inside and out, very little attention has been given within education sector to the influence of the learning environment on the well-being of children. Learning through Landscapes has a compilation of school grounds research.
What concerns me is that whilst we have taken time to ensure we look after our animal cousins who are in zoos, as a society we do not consider the environmental impact of our surroundings on children’s behaviour. Why are we exasperated and surprised when children display aggression and anti social behaviour within the four walls of a classroom or run amok in a playground at break times in a frenzy of releasing all their pent up energy? Personally I think it’s a minor miracle that teachers and children are so well-behaved when put into such a confined space for up to 5 hours per day.
Mahatma Ghandi is known for saying “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Perhaps it’s time for a rethink when it comes to schools and giving children the space they need and deserve. The chimps are getting a better deal right now.