Education under COVID-19

Kate Howlett, PhD student from the University of Cambridge Department of Zoology, explores whether lockdown has provided an opportunity for increased outdoor learning

child outdoors with buttercups
John Howlett

Outdoor learning is growing in popularity amongst primary school and early years teachers in the UK, with forest schools popping up all over the country since the 1990s. This is most likely in response to the consistent squeezing-out of outdoor learning and ecology from the national curriculum and an increasing focus on testing and learning objectives. Under the current COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, which have seen the closures of schools and a resultant surge in home schooling, there are tell-tale signs that a new-found appreciation for the importance of the natural world in children’s learning is emerging. UK Government guidelines for the re-opening of schools include specific reference to the use of outdoor space to enforce social distancing measures. Does this mark a key opportunity on which we must capitalise to ensure outdoor learning finds a new central home within the national curriculum?

Forest schooling is both a pedagogy and an accreditation scheme. The philosophy centres around taking children outside into the natural world to learn about cross-curricular themes as well as allowing them to build self-confidence, independence, social skills, curiosity and creativity. The reality is that we have no idea how many forest schools there are in the UK. Plenty of schools practice forest schooling with no accreditation, and plenty of schools gain accreditation but don’t go on to use it. But the fact remains that the idea has grown in popularity and prevalence across the UK over the past couple of decades.

Outdoor learning is a broader concept, of which the forest school idea is just one part. Included in this wider category are residential trips, adventure sports, youth activities or clubs, such as the Guides or Scouts. But central to all of these activities is the idea that regular time spent outside can enrich learning, both directly through using the natural world to achieve specific learning objectives, like numeracy, data collection or ecology, and through helping children and young people develop a broader skillset and become well rounded, full and happy adults with confidence, autonomy and social skills.

The fact that both the terms ‘outdoor learning’ and ‘forest schools’ are growing in usage in the UK, and the fact that neither of these terms have clear definitions, means that the two are often merged together when teachers, parents and children are asked about their attitudes towards them. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence from teachers, FSA-accredited Forest School Leaders, parents and children is overwhelmingly in favour of the benefits that taking children outside can bring to their learning. Teachers and parents frequently talk about the effects of outdoor learning sessions on pupils’ behaviour and engagement, reporting how children who struggle in a traditional classroom setting often come out of their shell and excel once outside. Children, meanwhile, often cite ‘forest school’ as their favourite ‘subject’ or part of the day, talking about how it makes them feel calmer, freer and lets them have more fun at school.

There is now a growing set of academic research which quantifies and backs up this anecdotal evidence. Studies have shown that time spent looking at or in green spaces can improve attention, concentration and mood, as well as reduce symptoms of ADHD in diagnosed children. So, it’s not surprising that teachers and parents report seeing the improvements that they do.

Despite growing public attitudes and academic research to support the benefits of outdoor learning, there still remains no inclusion of it within the national curriculum set by the UK Government. By contrast, there has been a systematic removal of ecology-related topics from all stages of the science curriculum over recent decades, eliminating the immediate need for children to be taken outside to learn. Increasing pressures on schools for places, funding and space means that there are fewer reasons for schools to invest in green infrastructure.

Does the recent lockdown situation represent a turning point?

However, recent lockdown restrictions have forced a switch to home schooling across the UK. Parents with the luxury of access to a private garden or access to nearby nature spots are espousing the benefits of this for helping to manage home schooling. Now, UK Government guidelines for the re-opening of schools specifically mentions the use of outdoor space in enforcing social distancing measures. Although not providing any detailed guidance as to how this is to be achieved, there is now a new reason for outside space in schools to be preserved. So, how can we best capitalise on this moment as an opportunity to move outdoor learning to a central tenet of the national curriculum?

Despite the reluctance of the Government to see outdoor learning’s potential to contribute directly to learning objectives, it does, in fact, tick off many national curriculum points. Being outside measuring the breadth of trees, for example, teaches children about numeracy, measurement, data collection and biology all in one go, all whilst engaging them with physical activity and teamwork. Many traditional classroom-based lessons can be translated to an outside space, but, without Government support for this idea, appropriate teacher training courses for outdoor learning become a luxury which only some schools can afford to invest in. Ideally, increased use of outdoor space on school re-opening will provide the catalyst for this long-overdue realisation in realms beyond the teaching profession.

But we need data to make this case convincingly, and we can’t possibly expect teachers to collect these for us. Organisations with access to teachers, schools and parents must take this opportunity to reach out. The benefits of outdoor learning during lockdown are likely highly variable between different socioeconomic backgrounds, with those with accessible, private green space, and parents who have themselves been lucky enough to benefit from access to green space growing up, much more likely to have outdoor learning included in their home schooling regime. This has the potential to exacerbate differences between socioeconomic groups in engagement with ecology; again, the ‘great leveller’ this pandemic is not.

Many questions remain: how will increased time outside affect children’s attitude to learning, and how will it affect teachers’ attitudes to green space? I have been trying to answer these questions in my PhD research. I’ve designed an online survey for the parents of primary school children, specifically addressing the effects of lockdown restrictions on children’s access to green space, as well as one for UK primary school teachers, which seeks to build a picture of the importance and use of green space in teaching. Responses are coming in thick and fast, but opinions and input from as wide a range of people as possible will help build the best picture.

It remains to be seen what the ‘new normal’ will be for education in the UK after the COVID-19 crisis is over, but if we can make an increased focus on outdoor learning part of this new normal, then we will begin to see sunlight streaming through the end of a long, leafy, tree-lined tunnel.