Outdoor learning and the benefits of forest schools

Taking lessons outside gives students and teachers time to interact, explore and reflect on their learning. Writing in the Guardian Teacher Network, freelance outdoor educator Jo Ling shares some success stories of the forest school approach and concludes with the following thoughts…

So, what happens when we go outside that makes it different from learning in the classroom?

Even though we may still have specific learning objectives in mind, the lesson becomes less formal, less teacher-led. Outdoor lessons naturally incorporate more movement, more sensory stimulation, more co-operation and talk but the lessons tend to have a slower feel. Is this anathema in our educational era of rigor and pace? Well, maybe. But so be it.

In my experience teachers and pupils need time and space in the week to slow down, to reflect and interact with the world at nature’s pace – slow and steady. Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? We shouldn’t be herding our children along the track to the finishing line.

Learning in this environment gives students an appreciation and love of the natural world. If delivered professionally and sympathetically, outdoor lessons enable children to make connections to and within the environment. Given time, this leads them towards a profound recognition of their impact on the world. They understand, for example, not just how bees pollinate flowers but that for us to enjoy good food we are reliant on pollinators. Likewise, they see how resources are not limitless, by using cuttings from trees on their site, for example. But they also learn that there are ways in which we manage and sustain these resources.

As these children will be the town planners, politicians, farmers, consumers, business leaders and so on of the future, their understanding of environmental issues has a significance for us all. I think we should make it a priority that they understand green issues not just intellectually but also at this deeper, intuitive level.

One final thought. I am reminded of a year 6 boy who spent a morning with me playing with mud, picking it up, allowing it to drip through his fingers, smearing it on trees, carrying it around, showing it to people. “Look at my mud,” he repeated, with wonderment on his face.

His teacher contacted me several weeks later. This pupil had written a story in which the main character is transformed into a mud monster.

“I have no doubt,” she wrote, “that the impetus for this story was the morning he spent with you and the sensations he experienced. His use of descriptive language in this story is way beyond what I would usually expect of him. I am now planning regular sessions for the children in my class to be outside so that they can be inspired by the natural world.”

Result, indeed.

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Categories: Primary and Teaching.

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