A nostalgic whim took me on a detour recently, to show my kids where I had built dens amongst trees and bracken as a dirty-kneed nine year old. It was the same spot, I told them on our approach, where my big brothers regularly rode their bikes on dirt tracks, over obstacles and down dips that they and their mates had created for themselves.
And we all called it The Wild Woods. And even as the words were coming out of my mouth I realised. Before we had rounded the corner where it would come into view I knew that our Wild Woods was really only a small copse at best. And then there it was, the group of about nine trees on the opposite side of the road from a row of houses and backing on to a field, separated by a wire fence and that bracken. I wasn’t disappointed though. Of course it was less impressive than my child’s eye had remembered it, it’s the Wagonwheel effect – but the reality didn’t matter. I knew that what counted were the adventures that it had staged, the secrets and stories shared there, the games we played by the rules we made up, the risks we took in building structures and taking dares; The lessons learnt there, all fired by the freedom found in feeling so far from home (we lived about 500 yards away, and some of our group much closer), and made possible by being out there, in “The Wild”.
At an Outdoor Learning INSET I delivered in a primary school today, I wanted to begin the activities with a shared sense of what being outside offers learners – to establish the “why?” of the day. So I told them this “Wild Woods” story. Then I asked them all to take a moment to think of a memorable outdoor experience of their own. Beach, back garden or Yorkshire Moors. Something that might be memorable for some profound reason or just a snapshot that has stayed strong. Whatever the experience, I was really interested in how, specifically, being outdoors had impacted on it. One teacher recalled a walk in the countryside with her parents. She had reached down to pick a bluebell but had been abruptly stopped by her mother, who then went on to explain the bluebells’ endangered status. Seeing the flower in its natural environment, the teacher explained, was what had helped her take on board how truly awful it would be if this delicate, beautiful thing disappeared from woodlands forever. That respect for the natural world has never left her, she said. And there were other equally perfect illustrations of the power of outdoor experiences and their positive impacts on learning. Staff cited feeling invigorated, liberated, inspired and more open to possibility as being the driving factors behind this.
I wanted to acknowledge that in the first place it was personal experience that opened my mind to the powerful potential of outdoor learning, and only then did I seek out the valuable research that evidenced my view and the many wonderful organisations that advocate it. With that established and with everyone in mind of their own sense of outdoor learning’s worth, I set about my business. The teachers’ enthusiasm for all of the activities made my day an absolute pleasure and, in turn translated into some inspired planning of their own, based only around what could be found in the school grounds. This included a fantastic coordinate-plotting activity, based around a netted climbing frame combined with pegs, pictures and clues, complete with extension activities and differentiated variations. They could market it!
On my train back to Liverpool a tweet popped up on my phone from one of the teachers who had been at the INSET, saying that she was still sitting out in the evening sun “planning the first of many weeks of Outdoor Learning”. I couldn’t have asked for more.