I recently accompanied my daughter’s Primary 2/3 class on a trip to Bennachie, a Forestry Commission Scotland forest just outside Inverurie. It was such a rewarding experience to see how much the children enjoyed themselves and to hear comments like “That was the best day ever” on our journey back to the school. The trip was a success and upon reflection I believe that was due to the fact that it met Juliet’s golden principles of teaching outdoors. The children were given opportunities to learn through structured and free play activities and develop their creativity in a natural environment while being provided with valuable lessons about sustainability.
Our day started off with a very interesting chat about the different kinds of owls that live in the Bennachie area. The children were given an opportunity to touch and examine the owls as well as the pellets they leave behind after feeding. They were also shown droppings of some of the other animals that can be found in the area. What a better way to capture the attention of 5-7 years old than to talk about poo!
We then headed outside for a little stroll during which the children were set to task with a scavenger hunt that encouraged them to look and listen to their surroundings. At the end of the hunt we took a few moments to stand in complete silence in the forest and listen to the natural sounds of the woods. What a glorious minute that was!
The children were then given some time to walk around and explore on their own. It was great to see how much the children enjoyed the chance to run around freely. There was lots of laughter and you could see them starting to notice and point out more and more things in their surroundings the longer they were in the environment. During this time I had an interesting discussion with our guide for the day about how the children were responding to this opportunity for unstructured play and she noted that they have been making an effort to incorporate more of this in their sessions because it is clear how much the children benefit and learn from the experience.
Before heading in for lunch, we played a game of “Meet a Tree”. The children were partnered off and given a blindfold. They were to take turns putting the blindfold on their partner, spinning them around a few times and then leading them to a tree. When they reached the tree, they were encouraged to hug, smell and feel the tree. They were then led away from the tree, spun around a few more times and had the blindfold removed. At this point, the children were to see if they could make out which tree they had met. The kids definitely had a lot of fun playing this game.
After a lunch, we headed back out into the woods for some den building which was by far the highlight of the day for many of the children. The rest thought the destroying of the dens was the best part! We were divided into small groups and assigned an area. The children had to select a tree to build their den around and then find appropriate sized sticks to complete the task. The children had a blast doing this! For some, the freedom to roam through the woods and to be allowed to pick up and drag around large sticks was absolute bliss. The children worked so well together on the task, making decisions together about which sticks to use and how to best position them against the tree.
After we finished the dens, we walked around to have a look at the dens the other groups had built. And then the most fun part for some – we were assigned a den to destroy. At first there were a few children upset that the dens had to be taken apart, but once it was explained to them that the site had to be left the way we found it and ready for the next group of children, they dove into the task with enthusiasm.
It was a fantastic day and wonderful to see every single child having a great time, learning, playing, and laughing. It wasn’t the warmest of days, but there wasn’t a single complaint about being cold, very few complaints about being hungry and very little in the way of disrupting behaviour which attests to the positive impact being outside can have on children. I am sure that for many, this particular trip will go down as one of their favourite days in Primary 2/3.
It is important to note that this trip was not an isolated activity, but was integrated into and used as a means to enhance and deepen the learning that was happening indoors. The classroom theme for the term is ‘Scotland’ and the children have been preparing to turn their classroom into a tourist information centre.
Taking a trip to a local tourist destination created an opportunity for the children to pretend they were tourists and to learn from the guide what it is that tourists come to Bennachie to see and do. Discussions while at Bennachie centred around the wildlife, flora and outdoor activities available that might draw tourists. As our guide had prior knowledge of what was going on back in the classroom, she was able to use her expertise and make connections between experiences at Bennachie and the classroom theme and presented information to the children accordingly. This demonstrated the importance of partners and teachers working together to plan and develop the outdoor learning experience and in turn made for a very meaningful and relevant outing for the children.
Upon returning to the classroom, the children set to work on creating their own pamphlets for Bennachie using actual pamphlets gathered from the site as well as from other areas of Scotland as examples. This created a great opportunity for the children to draw on what they had learned on the trip, develop their literacy skills, particularly in the area of writing and their creativity. The pamphlets were done in partners which also gave the children an opportunity to further develop their skills of cooperation. In addition to making pamphlets, pictures from the trip now feature in the classroom. Having been in the classroom several times since the trip, I have had occasion to observe the children working very hard on their pamphlets and listen to them having real, meaningful discussions with their partners about the learning that occurred on the trip.
Text and photos by Andrea Stevenson, Creative STAR Associate