This post has been written by Jan Fitzpatrick
This was the opinion of 81% of UK teachers who took part in Global Outdoor Classroom Day in 2018 as reported by Project Dirt working with Learning through Landscapes. The report reinforces the opinions of many educationalists working with children, that we are failing our children by forcing them to spend so much time indoors. Outdoor learning improves children’s health, engages them with learning and leads to a greater connection with nature. Play not only teaches critical life skills such as resilience, teamwork and creativity, but is central to children’s enjoyment of childhood and is enshrined within Article 31 of the UN Convention of Rights of the Child.
I remember the shock value of a headline in the Guardian newspaper way back in 2016: Three-quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. It turned out that the survey was funded by Persil and involved questioning a sample of 2,000 parents of 5-12 year olds in the UK, so admittedly was somewhat limited in its approach. Nevertheless, it found that 74% of children spent less than 60 minutes playing outside each day whereas UN guidelines for prisoners recommend ‘at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily.’ The survey also found that one fifth of children did not play outside at all on an average day.
Some of us who are old enough to remember playing out from dawn to dusk would find it hard to envisage such an indoor life. My own upbringing in Bootle in the 1970s involved endless riding up and down the road on bikes after school, playing in the friendly old man’s garden at the end of the cul-de-sac every evening, or else playing ‘shop’ with leaves and caterpillars over the garden wall. Later, after a move to a more suburban area, we made up our own games in the woods and beyond, where friendships were forged, tested, strengthened or forever shattered. It’s how we grew up and learned about the world around us. We took risks, set our own boundaries and learned when we needed to ask for help.
Whilst we know that active outdoor play is essential to the physical and mental health and development of children, we also know that parents’ real fears of strangers and traffic, a lack of green spaces in our urban environments as well as the lure of digital technology all leading youngsters to lead more and more enclosed lives. Most of the parents interviewed in the survey above said that their children have fewer opportunities to play outside than they did when young. The research was strongly supported by previous work, including a Government report that found more than one in nine children had not set foot in a park, forest, beach or any other natural environment for at least a year.
So, if children are denied the freedom to roam as many of us did, surely they are at least spending time outdoors during the school day? What about lunchtimes and breaktimes where they are liberated into the playground for at least an hour of free play, with little regard for the weather unless there is actually a tornado in the playground? Then we remember the ones kept in because they forgot their homework/ bookbag/ PE kit, and the ones who pretended to forget their homework/ bookbag/PE kit because they didn’t want to go out and play. Then there are the ones who loiter as long as possible in the dinner hall and are then being constantly shoed out of the cloakrooms and toilets. Then there are the ones who volunteer for every imaginable indoor job, from filling up the water bottles first thing in the morning, to helping set up the art materials before afternoon class. The ones who spend most of the time outside the staff room waiting for a first aider to tend to their bumped head, or outside the head’s office because they are in trouble again. The list goes on…..
Whilst many of us may dispute that our own children have been deprived of outdoor play, the statistics speak for themselves and impart an obligation upon us, as educators, to build more outdoor play into the school day. Furthermore, the end of daylight-saving time this weekend means that for the next six months, there will be even fewer opportunities for outdoor play from one weekend to the next. So what can we do?
Many schools have turned towards Forest Schools as a solution. The Forest School Association defines Forest School as ‘an inspirational process, that offers all learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees’. It is based on the provision of regular outdoor sessions in a natural environment designed to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world and aims to foster resilient, confident, independent and creative learners. Sessions are run by qualified Forest School practitioners.
For those not ready to dive straight into the Forest School ethos, Outdoor Classroom Day takes place on 7th November this year and may be a great starting point. This is a global campaign to celebrate and inspire outdoor learning and play. On the day, thousands of schools around the world take lessons outdoors and prioritise playtime. In 2018, over 3.5 million children worldwide took part, more than 550,000 of those were in the UK and Ireland. The link above will take to lots of inspirational ideas and resources that can be incorporated into your school day at any time of year in an attempt to get more outdoor learning and playing into your already crammed timetable. However, do heed this word of warning from the venerable David Attenborough on the perils of going no further than the playground:
“Natural outdoor environments can offer a very special kind of learning experience: the opportunity for discovery and learning through touching and feeling, the chance to explore and take risks, the stimulations of the fresh air and limitless skies. And yet, we are steadily depriving our children of these wonders. This is why the quality of the last remaining external environment to which many children have frequent access: the school grounds, is so important. Barren tarmac playgrounds may have been sufficient for my generation with freedom to roam, but times have changed and so too must our attitude to these vital spaces.”
Let us know in the comments below if your school has managed to improve its provision of outdoor learning and play or if you are planning on taking part in any of the Outdoor Classroom Day activities.