I loved teaching. I loved working with kids and seeing them learn, grow and mature. I loved the lightbulb moments. I loved making a difference.
But I did not love the bureaucracy and politics. I hated the screeds and screeds of admin which often felt was for admins sake. And I despised not feeling like I could truly meet the needs of every kid in my class.
This led to me suffering from stress and depression.
And life as a teacher isn’t just being a teacher, there is life too. And for a while, life was really hard. In just a few years I lost both my parents to cancer. Neither were old. But through that, I attempted to keep teaching.
After a breakdown I realised that if I went back to teaching, I needed to find a way to teach that helped me manage my mental health but supported the kids in my class too. It was just after getting back to work that I had an training afternoon, outdoors in the cold and rain, all about outdoor learning.
To say I was not enthusiastic would be an understatement. Yet I had no idea this afternoon would literally change my entire life.
But like most big changes, that took time.
I went back to class in the ASD base and decided I would try a lesson outside with my boys (my class only had boys). They shone and participated in a way that was hard to achieve indoors. Maybe there was something in this.
My lessons to start were very environmentally led. We had a super outdoor space which had recently been developed. The boys loved these lessons. We used a Floorbook to track and plan learning. Suddenly, we were hitting every curricular area and the boys were learning in a way they just wouldn’t indoors. Whether that was experimenting which tubs held the most water to get the mud puddle muddier, or deciding which car went furthest down the ramp they had built, there was real learning going on.
Outdoor learning became something to spend time and money on. I bought the books, attended the courses, spent hours online reading and even investigated further study. I want to work out how best to use this for the kids in my classes.
After a time, I went back to mainstream teaching. Outdoor learning had become part of my routine. It was enhancing my teaching. But it was also benefitting my mental health. Did you know just 3 short sessions outside 3 times a week can improve your mental health, and that of the children in your class too? It wasn’t something I wanted to lose.
But in mainstream there were more pressures, from management as well as parents. This is when outdoor learning changed for me. Originally, it had been about the environment with the learning following that. I had to find a way of using the curriculum to lead the learning. It was a complete change. But one that I loved. Curriculum based outdoor learning was the way forward.
I then spent the next few years honing my skills. Looking at the full curriculum and devising lessons and ideas to meet outcomes in every subject area.
It was during this time that something momentous occurred to me. I realised that not every child can shine in the classroom, no matter what you do as a teacher. For some children the classroom and school building is a place of failure. Try as you might, once a child feels this way, it is almost impossible to change it. It impacts on their mindset, their confidence and their learning.
But taking these children outside removed the barriers. I will always remember a wee boy; we will call him Thomas. He was primary 3 and struggled to spell his own name. He would actively avoid writing at all costs.
We were outdoors on a mildly windy, damp autumnal day. He was writing a senses poem (I see, I feel, I taste, I smell etc) with an emphasis on vocabulary. This young lad, who would avoid writing sat, focused and worked. I went over as I could see him struggle. I stood back as he sounded out the word excellent. Now, he didn’t quite get it right. But I knew it was a moment I would never forget. The walls that held him in had fallen away, he was trying, and he was succeeding, he was writing. And, I was so proud.
For this young man, lessons outdoors meant he could. He could try. He could achieve. He could learn. This helped his confidence, his self esteem and ultimately his learning. Once he started believing in himself, he could transfer that indoors. Yes, it took time, but it was worth it.
Outdoor learning is an adaptable tool. In different settings we use it different ways. But it is an amazing tool. It isn’t new. It isn’t rigid. It isn’t expensive or reliant on kit.
Not many teaching approaches can truly support your mental health and the mental health of your class. But outdoor learning can.
Not many teaching approaches can significantly reduce workload. But outdoor learning can.
Not many teaching approaches can make a difference throughout someone’s life. But outdoor learning can.
That cold damp day truly changed my life. I still teach, but I also run sessions helping others realise what an amazing thing outdoor learning is. We work in communities, schools and with individuals.