Should an outdoor learning lesson be bells and whistles, or can it be simple? That was the question posed to me this week. This blog will explore that.
In the ever-evolving landscape of education, the benefits of incorporating outdoor learning into the curriculum have become increasingly apparent. Here in Scotland, it is no longer an option; HMiE is looking for it during inspections. Education Scotland has had it in the literature for decades, and it is even within our Standards at the General Teaching Council. But, even if it was not as prevalent in policy, there is no denying the many benefits of outdoor learning.
Outdoor lessons not only stimulate a child’s natural curiosity and love for the environment but also provide a refreshing break from traditional classroom settings. However, a critical question often arises: should curriculum-based outdoor learning lessons be complicated or simple? In this blog, we will explore the merits of both approaches and ultimately share our beliefs.
The Complexity Argument
Proponents of complicated curriculum-based outdoor learning lessons often argue that challenging students with complex activities can help them develop critical thinking, problem-solving skills, or adaptability. Complex outdoor lessons may involve intricate lessons with many elements off site visits. These experiences are undoubtedly valuable in some cases, offering students a chance to delve deep into a subject or hone specific skills. However, the complexity argument has its drawbacks.
- Accessibility: Complex outdoor lessons can be challenging to implement across various educational settings. Schools with limited resources or facilities may need help to organise and fund elaborate trips or activities, potentially excluding some students from these valuable experiences. So often, I hear from teachers (and even head teachers) that they simply do not have the space/ type of playground/ natural area for outdoor learning. But you only need a little space or green areas to deliver outdoor learning outside. Concrete jungles work just as well and can help us keep things simple on site.
- Overwhelming: For some students, complicated outdoor lessons may feel overwhelming and intimidating, leading to a disinterest in learning and a negative association with outdoor education. We all know how it feels when things are all singing, all dancing. It can be exciting, but it can also feel a bit too much sometimes. Staff may well feel the same!
- Lost in Translation: Complex lessons may lose sight of the primary goal of outdoor education – connecting students to the desired learning outcome. Focusing too much on complexity may overshadow the simple wonders of learning.
The Simplicity Argument
On the other hand, proponents of simple curriculum-based outdoor learning lessons emphasise the beauty of uncomplicated experiences. Simple outdoor lessons can involve activities like using chalk to explore art, literacy, maths and more, or you could go on a scavenger hunt to explore the seasons. There is so much you can do. Here’s why simplicity in outdoor education is essential:
- Accessibility for All: Simple outdoor activities are accessible to students in various educational settings. They require minimal resources and can be adapted to suit multiple age groups and abilities. As educators, we all know how it feels to get to the resource cupboard, and whatever we need is not there. Our hearts sink, and we need to determine whether we have time to go searching for the resources or whether we need to switch up our lesson and do something different.
Simple lessons, with minimal resources, decrease the chances of this happening, which means we are more likely to plan to go out.
- Reducing Stress: Simple outdoor activities can be less overwhelming for students. But we also need to recognise they can be overwhelming for staff as well. Throughout my undergraduate degree, outdoor learning did not play a part. Yes, we had a residential trip up north, but taking the everyday curriculum outdoors was not something we explored. This is because back then, outdoor learning was primarily thought of as adventure based at camp, Forest School or gardening. This curriculum-based outdoor learning was simply not considered.
Asking staff to do something new can be stressful. But reassuring them that lessons can be as short as 20 minutes, link to indoor learning and can be simple can reduce a lot of the pressure.
- Integration with Classroom Learning: Simple outdoor lessons can seamlessly integrate with the classroom curriculum. By focusing on specific learning objectives, teachers can use outdoor experiences to reinforce concepts learned indoors. This approach means outdoor learning is not yet another add-on but a simple tool to support curriculum delivery.
The Benefits of Keeping It Simple
- Inclusivity: One of the most significant advantages of simplicity in curriculum-based outdoor learning is inclusivity. Students of all backgrounds and abilities can enjoy simple activities. Whether in an urban school with limited outdoor spaces or a rural setting surrounded by nature, simplicity allows everyone to participate. We spend our days in a concrete cube and make it motivational; there is no reason that a concrete jungle, with all the additional benefits, cannot be motivational as well.
- Stress Reduction: Complex outdoor lessons can inadvertently raise anxiety levels in some students and staff, counteracting the benefits of outdoor learning. Simplicity in outdoor education helps create a calm and stress-free atmosphere that encourages students to explore and learn at their own pace.
- Seamless Integration: Simplicity doesn’t mean sacrificing educational value. Simple outdoor lessons can effectively align with the classroom curriculum. Teachers can identify specific learning objectives that can be reinforced through outdoor experiences. For instance, a literacy lesson might be exploring mythical creatures in the playground, drawing them in situ with chalk before adding adjectives to them. This can then be used indoors to develop writing.
In the debate over whether curriculum-based outdoor learning lessons should be complicated or simple, there are valid arguments for both approaches. However, a strong case can be made for the benefits of simplicity. Simple outdoor lessons are inclusive, accessible, and effective in nurturing a love for the environment.
By keeping outdoor education simple, we can ensure that every student, regardless of their background or abilities, can enjoy the many benefits. In the end, it’s the simplicity of outdoor learning that often leaves the most profound and lasting impact on a child’s education and their relationship with the natural world. When we embrace simplicity, we unlock the full potential of outdoor education and empower students to become lifelong stewards of the environment. And, what is more, it is simplicity that will turn outdoor learning into a tool that is easy to use by teachers.
Love Outdoor Learning is dedicated to supporting outdoor learning and play in schools and nurseries. We offer membership resources, publications, on-site support, and training programs to empower educators. Visit our website to discover how we can help you create enriching outdoor experiences for your students. Let’s embrace the beauty of outdoor learning together!