David Storrie describes a course on learning outside the classroom that has allowed teachers to critically examine their school grounds

In September 2004 the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee announced an enquiry into education outside the classroom.

This followed concern that school trips were being reduced after some high-profile but isolated accidents had been reported in the media. The DfES followed the enquiry with a multi-party task group that took evidence from a wide range of stakeholder organisations. Teacher unions, headteachers, outdoor charities and researchers were all consulted. As a result the government created the Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto in 2006. This clearly built upon other educational initiatives which schools have been building into their current practice, such as Every Child Matters (2004), Excellence and Enjoyment (2004), Sustainable Schools and Growing Schools. The aim of the document is to ensure that ‘Every young person should experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of learning and personal development, whatever their age, ability or circumstances.’

The CPD programme

The University of Winchester announced in the summer of 2007 an exciting and dynamic link with the national school grounds charity, Learning Through Landscapes. A creative Master’s module was developed which has allowed teachers and schools to critically examine their school grounds, how they are currently used and how they might be developed to ensure that they support formal curriculum leaning and informal learning through play.

Teachers attended five twilight sessions which were led by Mary Jackson, education officer from Learning through Landscapes and myself. The sessions explored why school grounds matter, using the outdoors as a resource and examples from successful local schools. Teachers were encouraged to bring a medium-term plan that they wished to develop for their school. Teachers considered potential activities that could be built into their MTP. Teachers began to question the design of their school grounds and if they were really built to meet the needs of the children and the curriculum. While auditing the grounds one school established that all of its playground seating was in the form of a bench; this was not encouraging speaking and listening opportunities in the playground. The school has now installed paired seating so that children can face each other in quiet areas of the playground. This new seating has allowed children to read to one another at break and lunchtime or simply sit and have conversations. Teachers have also reported that they are building the grounds into their medium-term planning more widely, trying to ensure that at least once in half-term each subject exposes the children to an activity outside the classroom.

Why bother?
The sessions have allowed teachers to critically reflect upon their work. They have been pointed towards academic research that has helped them to consider how their work in school relates to research findings. They were in general initially reluctant to engage in Master’s level work, but all are now completing a Master’s level response that has allowed them to publish their critical reflection for 20 credits towards a Master’s degree.

Teachers have reported the following outcomes from developing their school grounds and getting children to engage with learning beyond the classroom:

  • Pupils were more engaged in learning activities.
  • Through the development of composting, growing vegetables and energy monitoring pupils have become active citizens and stewards of the environment.
  • Pupils were able to take part in the assessment of risk before undertaking activities.
  • Improved pupils attitudes towards learning.
  • Those pupils who respond to kinaesthetic learning enjoyed the hands-on practical nature of lessons.
  • Things could be bigger and nosier.

Many of the teachers who completed the Learning Outside the Classroom Module at the University of Winchester are considering the role of educational trips in the curriculum. One teacher stated:

I have really benefited from critically thinking about my practice against published research. It has really helped me to go back to school and change my practice and lead the development of our school grounds. I am now looking forward to more fully considering the use of school trips within our curriculum and examining the benefits they bring to pupil learning.’

Your school grounds: issues to consider

Do you currently have an outside classroom?
An area where children know they should gather when teachers want to have the children together can really help provide structure to outdoor activities, eg having log seats on an area of the grounds.

Have the children been consulted?
The children spent more time in the grounds than anybody else, they know what needs to change and be developed!

Do you have opportunities for informal learning?
Schools often provide large play equipment which only a few children can access. Provision of some cheap cardboard tubes and boxes can provide the children with the opportunity explore and build informally.

Are areas easily accessible?
Before building a pond or other nature area do consider if these areas will be easy to access, if they are not, teachers may not use the area when the initial excitement of the development has settled. Consider how will maintain the new areas. It is worth trying to include this in re-negotiation of service level agreements with your local authority.

Do the defined areas of you grounds create behaviour problems?
It is worth auditing your grounds as a school. Does football take over the playground at lunch? Are all children’s interests being catered for? Is there sufficient space for children to read quietly, play other games? Is there shade for children?