As a teacher or educator, the classroom is your domain. You are in charge. You set the rules and the learning goals. Your children are close at hand, and under a close watch.
Once you leave the classroom, things change. You have less control. Children have more space, literally and metaphorically. So there is a shift in responsibilities. And this can feel frightening.
So why would you consider taking learning outside? And why would you give any thought to what children learn through free play?
The reason is simple: with this shift in responsibilities comes a powerful learning opportunity: the chance for children to explore, experiment, and discover things for themselves. We know that children have an appetite for experience and understanding and competence: they want to get to grips with the world around them (as a moment’s reflection on our own memories of childhood adventures will tell us).
We also know that children engage best with learning when they get a little bit out of their comfort zones and become open to new ideas and experiences. When they go from what they know already (and find boring) to what is uncertain, adventurous and potentially exciting.
Stepping outside the classroom is your cue to get out of your own comfort zone and add a dash of exploration, experimentation and discovery into the mix. It means being open to embarking on some new learning adventures. It is your chance to embrace the upside of risk, and to see barriers as challenges to be overcome rather than as insurmountable obstacles.
And the truth is, some of these barriers are less insurmountable than they appear. One example is the threat of litigation, which is a big factor here in the UK and in many other countries.
The reality is that claims and court cases are rare and much of the fear is due to media scaremongering. And on the rare occasions where things gone wrong and a child has been seriously hurt, the courts have tended to take a common-sense view, as in this landmark legal case from Canada.
I fly the flag for freedom and choice in breaktimes/recess, and for learning initiatives like Forest School that are strongly child-led. I believe that children are most highly motivated when they have most control over their actions and choices.
However, there is a ladder of approaches to outdoor learning and play. And I realise that not everyone is ready or willing to get near the top of that ladder.
The great thing about the global Outdoor Classroom Day campaign on 18 May – and one reason I am happy to be supporting it – is that schools and educators can get support and inspiration from others in taking steps up this ladder. To be a part of something bigger, and to share your ideas and experiences.
I am also proud that Outdoor Classroom Day started in my home city of London, as a response to my Sowing the Seeds report for the Mayor of London. Back in 2012 a group of outdoor educators, inspired by the report and concerned about children’s disconnection with nature, came together to organise what they called Empty Classroom Day as a way of raising awareness and taking practical action. A few years on, the idea has spread to over 60 countries and half a million children.
Whether you are just starting to climb the ladder of engagement with the outdoors, or well on the way up, do sign up online. Then you can check out the comprehensive website and resources from leading educationalists including outdoor learning champion and former head teacher Juliet Robertson, creative playtime expert Michael Follett and the quirky team at Mission:Explore. You’ll find a briefing of mine there too, on taking a balanced approach to risk.
So have an explore, take a step or two up the ladder of engagement with the outdoors, and see the difference it makes to children’s learning and play!