It was a windy, wet and wild day in November as I traipsed across the local authority for some training. It had been a long and trying week; I just wanted to get home. But getting home was going to prove either tiresome (with two buses) or expensive (in a taxi). I didn’t want to be there.
I found my way to the classroom and opened up my packed lunch. The rain continued to lash the windows as my lunch was quickly eaten. If I was going to be subjected to this, I wasn’t going to do it hungry.
Then it was time to start. The PowerPoint began by discussing all the benefits of outdoor learning, and the trainer shared their experiences. And then, it was time to head outside into the weather. Wonderful.
Around 90 minutes were spent in this weather. I could see outdoor learning might help some kids, but I didn’t think for a second it would help mine. But I was expected to take them outside the following week for a lesson. If I had to do yet another add-on, I might as well get it done. It would show that this approach wouldn’t work for my kids.
So we headed outside for a lesson. The kids put on their waterproofs (because they had been provided with them, who cared about the staff?!). I was prepared… with both the outside lesson and the indoor one for when it inevitably failed.
But it worked. The kids loved it. They were on task. They were trying—even the kids who weren’t often involved or loved learning.
Ack, it was a fluke. Something new. It wouldn’t last.
I followed the school’s expectations, getting the kids outside at least twice a week. It was a pain. I wasted time every week researching what to teach and even more time and money on resources. The kids might get something out of it, but it cost me precious time and my hard-earned wages.
But that teaching contract was ending; it was time to move to a new school. Outdoor learning may have worked for those kids, but there was no way it would work in my new setting. That was my thought every time I moved on. From mainstream to severe and complex, then to an autism base and finally back to mainstream. In different ages and stages.
Whenever I thought outdoor learning wouldn’t work for my group of kids, it kept working. It was a stubborn wee thing, and so was I. But outdoor learning kept working for the kids.
That’s not to say it always went smoothly. Like any teacher, I had my mess ups and disasters! But I learned.
I kept learning more through the course lead teacher in outdoor learning courses, attending Outdoor Woodland Learning (OWL) Scotland events and spending money on training and resources.
I developed a kit bag with the tools I needed so that I could grab it anytime I went out. It made life so much easier! I also realised I could pull a pair of baggy joggers over whatever skirt or dress I was wearing that day, pop some socks over my tights and wellies or boots, and be outdoors ready in seconds. (I actually discovered this using my hubby’s joggers at first, I didn’t even own any baggy pairs!)
The kids loved it, and I was too. I struggled with my mental health as a teacher, having two breakdowns. Sometimes I didn’t want to be in that building, and being able to take the kids outside to learn helped me get back to being me. Somehow, by stealth, I had become an outdoor teacher. Outdoor Learning was invaluable to me.
Of course, back then, the research on how time outdoors impacted mental health was in its infancy, but now it seems obvious. You only need to be outside for 20 minutes to see a reduction in stress, anxiety, blood pressure, and so much more.
And still, I learned more, going to Dirty Weekends – using my precious weekends to network and undertake training. I remember my nerves when heading to my first Dirty Weekend. I might teach outdoors, but I didn’t view myself as outdoorsy.
My auto-immune illness, which impacts my joints, causes me pain, making it hard to be physically active. I may have spent high school in the ski and kayak clubs, but the pain limited my ability as an adult.
I may have spent my time playing outside as a child, and my family had visited every country park in Scotland by the time I was in high school, but I couldn’t tell you an oak from a larch (and surely a good teacher couldn’t do that, right?)
As for gardening, I could and had managed to kill cacti.
I might be a teacher taking learning outside, but I definitely wasn’t an outdoor person. I didn’t meet any of the criteria. But as a teacher who delivered outdoor learning, I could learn more.
Slowly, a bank of high quality tried and tested lessons were being built. I was getting teaching jobs because I could talk competently about outdoor learning in interviews (whether the schools wanted it, in reality, was another matter).
The outdoors became my happy place to teach. But, over time, teaching was not my happy place. After a freak accident in school, which was not dealt well with by management, I decided it was time to break out of teaching before it broke me.
As I sat in the accident and emergency, I decided to resign; daily supply would give me the time and space to discover what I wanted my life to look like. Waiting on an x-ray, I started my Facebook page for a tutoring business to supplement my bills. And while waiting to see the doctor, I applied for a Masters’s in Learning for Sustainability, which also covered outdoor learning.
A few months later, my tutor families asked for an outdoor group to send their kids to. Love Outdoor Learning was born. My husband suggested the name; he thought LOL would be funny. Within a year of leaving a proper job, I had two businesses, was part-way through my degree and was happier than I’d been in a long time. Even my pain levels had decreased hugely. I went from days where I couldn’t put my shoes on and had to teach in slippers to getting back to outdoor adventure activities.
Despite this, I still wasn’t an outdoor person, was I? While I enjoyed a day skiing or boarding, I also enjoyed the apres ski, possibly more. The idea of joining my husband as he made his first attempt to walk the West Highland Way was my idea of hell (he has done it a few times now).
My blossoming outdoor learning business started with me simply running outdoor sessions in a local park on my own. I grew it into an award-winning company with staff, delivering sessions across central Scotland and working with schools to get their pupils outside.
I had continued my training and could now identify an oak and larch, tell you folklore and herbal uses of each, and many more besides.
But then lockdown came. Everything I had worked for over the last few years was in jeopardy. I needed to find a way forward to keep going and, more importantly, support my staff team.
We moved things online, creating a 12-week outdoor literacy programme which we gave away for free. Suddenly, schools and nurseries across Scotland were sharing our resources.
But covid continued, and I needed a way to keep my staff team going, so we used the lessons I had tried and tested over the years and built a membership site for schools.
And schools started asking for training. I started travelling the length and breadth of the country.
The pandemic wasn’t just a difficult time professionally; it was also tough personally. As covid initially hit, my husband and I moved in with my in-laws to help care for my father-in-law, who was suffering from Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s. (We lost him in 2022)
Two things got me through this tough time. The first was escaping into the outdoors, walking in the Bathgate hills or on the water in my kayak (a pandemic buy), and the second was my business.
It was during these years that the business changed. It had started running weekend sessions, but they didn’t take back up, and the bookings weren’t coming, despite trying. The school work was busy. So the decision was made to focus on that. Unfortunately, this meant letting the weekend staff go. The most challenging business decision I think I’ll ever make.
I continued with my degree and other training, from Forest School to Woodland and Coastal Activity Leader Trainings. I even undertook foraging courses and many more. I learned to whittle.
As my knowledge and confidence grew, I still didn’t feel like an outdoors person. There were always people more outdoorsy than me. Plus, I still loved my skirts, even if my nails weren’t being done fortnightly anymore or my hair every six weeks!
But then it struck me; what even is an “outdoors person”? Being an outdoors person is not about the activities you do, the skills you have, or the qualifications. It isn’t as if you do certain things and there is a secret job or title you get.
Being an outdoors person is all about mindset. I love being outdoors. I love how it makes me feel. It has become a need deep within me. If I don’t get outside enough, then I turn into a bit of a nightmare. I am an outdoors person who loves outdoor learning.
How I’ve changed from that windy, wet and wild day in November