Making Outdoor Learning work in your Setting.

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I am short on resources, short on money, short on expertise but want to make outdoor learning dsc_0360work in my setting. How do I make it happen? What facilities do I need? What will it all cost? I was recently invited to visit a school by a headteacher who had attended one of my courses. She was relatively new to her setting and was keen to get outdoor learning going. An NQT was training as a Forest School Leader but said she was too busy with her first year to complete the course any time soon. How do you make it work? I thought it might be useful to share some of the ideas we put together.

Who is going to be your outdoor learning champion? This is someone who brings the strategy into existence and provides the ongoing encouragement to support change and supports those making the changes. If no one is pushing the initiative it won’t work. It should be an established member of staff – it can even be a governor – but they need to be able to provide hands-on support.

Write the policy. Decide the entitlement with the people in your setting. How does 1 hour a week sound, or two hours for Key Stage 1? Decide on group sizes. I work with fifteen kids at a time for non-sharp tool activities. For Pupil Premium supported learners you might be able to afford to staff at 6:1. In some settings it is ‘week on, week off’ with each half class getting a whole afternoon. What are your aims? Think about “promoting more physically active curriculum delivery, promoting physical and mental well-being, learning about the natural environment, delivering the curriculum in the environment that best suits the activity, developing team-building, risk-taking and problem-solving, encouraging resilience and a positive attitude to working in adverse conditions.” Involve staff and governors in drafting and approving the policy. There are numerous exemplars online.

Make it Relevant. Create your own activities to suit the curriculum. I do outdoor ‘Shape, Space and Measure’ activities with sticks and pebbles with KS1. We measure entire fields. At the minute I’m working on outdoor literature projects with KS2 – Shakespeare wrote several plays that are meant for the outdoors.  

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Keep it simple at the start and build skills.

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Ongoing projects – like clay-oven building, are a great way to keep older children engaged and challenged.

Start small – choose a cohort to build experience and resources. Think about your Nurture Group or other groups that benefit from Pupil Premium. Build up from simple, accessible, fun things to do. For example, there’s ‘clay faces’. All ages find there own level of creativity – it’s relaxing, it’s good for reflection and it’s easy to resource.

Think about projects. At one school where I work we are making a cob oven. At another school we’re digging a pond. Each project will last at least two terms and sits alongside more targeted, curriculum-based activities. ‘Can I dig up some clay?’ ‘Sure, why not?’ ‘Can I mix some cob?’ ‘You know where the sand and chopped straw is. And you’ll need a fresh bucket of water.’ This kind of stuff is all relevant to a rounded learning experience. But start simple – we can easily create a programme of bug-sampling, building with sticks, clay-based activities, art-work with natural materials, simple structure building and so-on that require few resources, no sharp tools and no special skills. I will be adding a further 10 Forest School curriculum based activities linked to this article that any teacher can deliver. They are typically designed to last an hour. Visit again soon.

How do I train people? The most effective way of training over time is side-by-side support. This might involve employing a Forest School specialist (if you don’t have one) to work alongside your existing staff to pass on the skills. This can be done for a couple of staff over, say, a term. After that, the trained staff can cascade their skills. There is no doubt that confidence is best built by ‘doing it’. Teachers need to find out what works for them and for their kids and this is the best way. But don’t I need to be Forest School qualified? Off-site it is necessary. Many authorities and insurers require that you have the pieces of paper to show you are qualified to lead an activity. On-site it’s down to your own risk-assessment protocols that will naturally include in-house training and observation.

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Some activities are best left to the experts!

What about those Risk Assessments? Risk assessments cannot be done without prior experience of the activity. It is hard to foresee how things will work out. That’s where the sharing of experience and side-by-side training is vital. The Risk Assessment should be attached to the activity plan and shared with all involved (particularly the kids!) as part of the activity. Remember that the identification of hazards and the management of risk is as vital a learning experience for the kids as it is for you.

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Weather-resilence is important. It’s part of the learning experience and children don’t miss out because of bad weather.

What about materials and other physical resources? This is a long one but I will deal with it simply. Weather resilience is vital. Children must be able to work in light rain. Waterproof dungarees have proved ideal at KS1 for a quick change. Overalls suit older kids that they can quickly slip over school uniform for those dirty or damp activities. Build up a stock of wellies – but try and get kids to bring their own. Welly racks are very, very useful. A tarpaulin canopy big enough to take 15 kids and 15 log stumps to sit on/work on means there’s no excuse to stay indoors when it is wet. You need a mud-resistent work area. Mine are both maintained using wood-chip delivered free by local tree-surgeons. Log stumps etc.. come from the same source. You shouldn’t be paying for wood! Oh, and that shed… Yes, teachers need to know where the stuff is. They need to know it’s there. There needs to be protocols for keeping it there and keeping it tidy.

Timetable it. Support it from the centre. This is the tough bit. Space and resources are limited. You need to work out who it doing what and where. Timetabling helps everyone because it facilitates forward planning. If it is left to individual members of staff to decide where, when and how they will feel unsupported and will find he resources aren’t there when they need them. Develop a carousel of spaces. Think about a small garden of raised beds, a ‘wild area’ for bug hunts, a wood chip space with canopy for making activities and general Forest School and an open space for labyrinth making, measurement activities and games.

Make sure your spaces are easy to maintain. Build maintenance, wherever practical, into the educational activities. Children can do most of it. Don’t do stuff that means that your grounds people can’t use their ride-on mowers or strimmers. Make sure they are on board with your plans.

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