The power of outdoor activities to inspire children and bring them together
Standing in a gorge on the North Wales coast in the rain on a cold September day might not be everyone’s idea of fun, but for me, six children and an instructor there was nowhere else we would rather have been. Fully kitted-out and prepared to “have a go”, we tackled the water pouring down around us, scrambled up slippery rocks, assessed risks to ourselves and each other, helped each other overcome obstacles and had a huge amount of fun. More importantly though, the children I was with learnt something about themselves and each other and felt a huge sense of achievement looking down at what many of them had been afraid to tackle earlier that day.
This was also the time that I decided that classroom teaching was no longer for me. I have been a primary school teacher in various countries, cities and towns for 15 years. Part of the lure of teaching has always been the aspect of helping children overcome fears and supporting them to break away from labels that are so readily placed upon their young shoulders – from “creative but not academic” to “troublemaker”, or from “lazy but with potential” to “top of the class”. I have never had an outdoor learning session that hasn’t pushed boundaries in all directions and benefited all of the children. I now dedicate my teaching to doing just that. It is quite amazing to see a group of children build a giant catapult or have to construct a shelter that will withstand water and see how it turns the tables on the equilibrium of a class.
Meeting the challenge
As a newly qualified teacher in central London many years ago, I went on a number of residential trips with the pupils. As well as being subjected to the usual comments – like “Look! Cows!” and “Where are all the shops?” and the large cheers that went up when we passed the kids’ favourite fast food outlets – I had my eyes opened in many ways. I remember particularly well a trip that involved a girl who was blind and a boy with a troubled home life and a recent diagnosis of ADHD. The experience that these children had, along with all the other children on the trip, was one that I suspect they will never forget. Nothing was differentiated, aside from an understanding of challenge; the expectation for all children was that they would rise to the challenges ahead of them and they did.
Upon arrival at the destination, the child with ADHD stood in awe at the door to the dorms, looking out at the field and the woods beyond. “When do we go in there?”, “What do we do in there?”, “Where are we allowed to go?” and a thousand other questions poured from him. The response from the centre leader was, “When you have unpacked and made your beds”. To my astonishment, his bed was made and his clothes put neatly in cupboards in double quick time. What’s more, he was helping others around him. A child who would swear and throw things when asked to write a sentence or line up for the dinner queue was suddenly engaged in his tasks and keen to learn about this new and exciting world. Over the course of the five days, for this usually troubled pupil, everything was “wicked”, nothing was “boring” and the questions kept coming.
Returning to London was not something that this young man was keen to do. It wasn’t plain sailing for him back at school, but he got his Level 3s (something he was way off being predicted) as he began to see school more as a challenge than a punishment and understand that challenges could be overcome. I remember a conversation in the staff room with his learning mentor three weeks after the trip where she commented on his new-found willingness to engage and discuss what was troubling him; “If only we could have sent him in Year 1”, was her parting comment.
Engaging with learning
On that same trip the truly inclusive nature of outdoor learning was further brought home to me by working with a girl who had been blind from birth but was thriving in a mainstream school. She was equally engaged throughout the trip, rising to challenges and relishing the different environment to the crowded city streets. She didn’t need encouragement to work in school but for her, the freedom came in being able to express herself in different ways, to use her many talents to help the group. All activities were undertaken with a heightened sense of safety by the staff but with utter fearlessness by her. On the climbing wall, supported by an instructor, she could listen to instructions and feel for her next hold or grip, reaching the top without realising she had done so.
Being in a new environment didn’t phase her but opened her up to the wider world. On the night walk in the woods it was this girl who first heard the owls and the bats around us. She was the only one to pick up the sound of traffic from the A3 miles away, although the others saw the glow of the lights. She was empowered more than anyone by the experience, and her peers, and myself, gained greater insight and understanding of her world.
Outdoor learning doesn’t have to involve gorge walking, abseiling, mountain hiking or adrenaline-fuelled activities. It is about much more than the specific activity. Getting children outside when they would normally be inside helps them to appreciate the space they have and gives them a sense of mindfulness that they rarely experience in the classroom. For children with SEN or disabilities this kind of learning can represent a chance to shine and express themselves in ways that are less conventional.
Over the years, I have seen the change in children, many of whom would be described as problematic or disruptive, once they are set a challenge outdoors. I’ve seen dyslexic children, who find most tasks in class a struggle without structured support, suddenly finding themselves giving orders and managing a team challenge because they have had to overcome problems for most of their education, so it comes naturally to them. I’ve seen a child with a social anxiety disorder who, although they did not help build the shelter, photographed the process and ended up eating their lunch in the group’s shelter with their peers rather than alone in the classroom as they had done for years. These are not one-off occurrences.
Leaving aside the obvious physical benefits of being outdoors, children thrive when they are faced with challenges and given the freedom to express their ideas in a setting which encourages them to do so. Not only do these challenges encourage self-awareness and self-efficacy, skills learnt and developed over a programme of dedicated outdoor learning are also transferable to all areas of life. Of course, to the delight of headteachers everywhere, these skills are also transferable into the classroom. As many teachers will tell you, if these experiences benefit one child in the class, the likelihood is that they will benefit all.
For me, these words from a child on the autism spectrum, whom I recently worked with, do more to highlight the benefits of outdoor activities for children with SEN than any research papers or SATs data possibly could: “I loved it because I was working with a team. My team. And people don’t normally play with me on the playground. We did it and we did it together.”
Nick Russell set up and runs Head First Education, a company that brings fun, engaging team-building activities into schools: