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What is outdoor learning?

In this article, Professor Helen Bilton explains how learning outdoors results in learning that 'sticks' and develops resilience in children.
A child looking through binocolours
© University of Reading
To care for the world, you need to love it. To love it, you need to be a part of it. To be a part of it, you need to spend lots of time out in it. In this way you can appreciate the world’s power and fragility. Children must be allowed to learn in the outdoor environment.
Learning, put simply, is about acquiring knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes to memory. If you consider learning to care for nature:
• knowledge is the factual information about the natural world,
• understanding is linking those facts to impact and considering what this means now and in the future,
• skills include using our senses to experience the natural world,
• attitude is looking at our own behaviour and caring enough to want to do something.
There is a tendency to see learning as occurring at desks inside buildings and therefore inextricably linked to school. However, this is clearly not the case. We learn wherever we are and cannot learn to care about the world in one lesson; it must be an ongoing process.

Experiential learning

Some learning is more effective if ‘experienced’ – if a child is fully immersed, body and mind – which can be achieved when outside. For example, the best place to learn about the colour green is to look to our natural world: olive, pea, lime, jade, sea, sage, aquamarine, emerald…
If you want to understand weight and distance, then creating constructions out of natural objects – perhaps to move water – will bring these concepts to life. The child learns through the outdoor environment and at the same time learns about the outdoor environment.
©Helen Bilton and Anne Crook, Exploring outdoors ages 3-11. A guide for schools.

Inspiring wonder and awe

The importance of learning outside isn’t new. The learning experiences approach was conceived by Dewey (psychologist, philosopher, educational reformer) in the early 1900s, who argued that children learn through the active doing of an experience. In 1914, Margaret McMillan (nursery school pioneer), set up London’s first open air nursery school where all the learning happened outside as a direct response to the harsh approach of elementary schooling, and because children required stimulating environments to stay interested. Rachel Carson (marine biologist, environmentalist) advocated the natural environment as somewhere all children feel inspired to learn through the beauty, the unknown, the wonder and awe.
A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.1

However, there’s no avoiding that modern-day schooling, the pressures teachers face and resources at our disposal make developing learning experiences outdoors challenging. This course will acknowledge and address some of these challenges through examples but we can over-complicate outdoor learning when often simplicity is the best approach. You don’t need complex plans, special equipment or an extra qualification but you do need enthusiasm and willingness to embrace the outdoors as another learning space.

Taking a holistic approach

Learning outdoors is integral to learning about the environment because it enables children to use their whole body to engage in the experience, use all their senses to begin to understand it and start constructing their own framework for making sense of the world. Experiential learning sticks (ie, commits the learning to memory) and also develops resilience in children, enabling them to face challenges and overcome them. And finally, learning outdoors is about learning over time. To care for the environment you need to experience it daily on an ongoing basis.

You’ll explore the benefits of outdoor learning in more detail later in the course but are there any key benefits which come instantly to mind?

1 p54 in Carson, R. (1998). A Sense of Wonder (Harper Collins), originally published in 1956.
© University of Reading
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