Outdoor education can’t be graded or examined. There’s no A* for achievement or pass rate for effort. However, the benefits of outdoor learning can be seen – as many teachers will agree ¬– in the smiles on students’ faces.
Martin Foakes (Tanglin) says:
“There is a wealth of research and evidence to support the idea that children learn better at school and benefit from spending time in nature and playing outside – or to put it another way, we are beginning to appreciate the health benefits of Vitamin N (Nature)."
Mr Foakes cites evidence in American journalist Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, in which he highlights the problems of what he describes evocatively as Nature Deficit Disorder.
“A truly authentic outdoor experience can provide children with the opportunity to explore their own relationship with the world, but also to learn how to overcome challenges together and build genuine resilience. So there are huge long-term benefits in teaching children how to cope with unpredictable situations and how to build tenacity and resilience.”
A 2018 report by Outdoor Classroom Day, a global movement campaigning to make outdoor play part of every school day, highlights some of the key benefits. 88% of teachers surveyed said that children are happier after playing outdoors and are more engaged in learning when taking lessons outdoors, and 86% of teachers said that playing outdoors gives children a better understanding of the environment.
A student may feel like they are on an adventure rather than learning. They may see a change in their teacher ‘having fun’. Or they may feel more freedom to express themselves by being able to use their bodies, not just their voices and hands.
CIS says that learning beyond the confines of the traditional classroom helps students to “develop observational, analytical and collaborative skills and a sense of independence, resilience and responsibility.”
“Learning in real-world environments allows students to interact with a wide variety of environments, people and situations. This helps to widen their knowledge and understanding of the world, the impact of their actions, and their roles within it.
“Outdoor learning inspires children to “slow down”, take their time to observe, process, inquire, and see the interconnectedness of the world around them. They also have the chance to experience local, regional, global and environmental issues first-hand.
As Eugene Low (The Grange) explains, a ‘wall-less’ classroom can help primary schoolchildren to understand the relevance of a subject taught in school to everyday life; they may also discover that not everything on the outside matches the textbooks they read on the inside.
Mr Low adds:
“The Learning Environment is often seen as the third teacher to the students. Experience has to be in context and being outdoors certainly provide some of the much-welcomed primary sources of information and context that will support authentic learning.
“Instead of relying on the internet images to teach about parts of a plant and flower, mini-beasts, weather and climate, etc., our Grange Kids are fortunate to be given opportunities to directly observe these and interact with them."
With the restrictions of the past 18 months, schools have needed to adapt their outdoor education programmes, some more successfully than others. Tanglin, for example, has focused on offering meaningful opportunities by pivoting to “a new blend that mixes on-campus events during formal lessons, Outdoor Education theme days and CCAs, with the best possible programme of off-site adventure activities and day trips that we can find in Singapore”.
As we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, the benefits associated with outdoor learning have never been more important than now. It also provides a very natural and accessible antidote to the increase in screen time and technology.
Mr Foakes explains why outdoor education has a unique role to play in restoring and rebuilding student wellbeing.
“Dealing with uncertainty, learning how to be flexible and developing good decision-making and leadership skills in a challenging situation are some of the key learning outcomes of a successful Outdoor Education experience.
"This is why in 2021 it is more important than ever to provide students with real opportunities to challenge themselves and work effectively as a team – to overcome the obstacles that they will inevitably come across in their lives, especially important during a global pandemic. No other subject at school can do this as effectively as Outdoor Education.”
There are an increasing number of schools worldwide that are demonstrating leading practice outdoors – and one of the lessons to be learnt is that learning outdoors is about engaging children in many different ways. In the words of Simon Beames, Outdoor Education Lecturer at Edinburgh University, “We are not saying ‘goodbye’ to our classrooms; we are opening them up.”
The last word, though, belongs to Martin Foakes at Tanglin, whose passion for outdoor education is the driving force behind Tanglin’s forward-thinking programmes today, and tomorrow.
“Outdoor Education when done right gives students the opportunity to fall in love with the planet, to understand how we affect it and therefore it can encourage and inspire young people to make the world a better place, which is definitely not a bad thing to be aiming for.”