Outdoor Learning is often a rewarding and transformative experience for young people – and with their pioneering education projects, NatureScot aim to inspire Scottish pupils’ passion for the natural environment. By Dominic Ryan
NINETEENTH-century educator Friedrich Froebel encouraged the use of gardens – or kindergartens – as engaging classrooms for youngsters, while polymath Sir John Lubbock wrote: “Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea are excellent schoolmasters and teach us more than we can ever learn from books.”
Through the years such appreciation for the power of nature to enhance learning has grown even stronger among educators. In fact, studies now show Outdoor Learning also improves health and wellbeing for people of all ages and can contribute to a range of academic outcomes that help reduce the attainment gap.
It’s no surprise, therefore, promoting and supporting new opportunities for learning in the outdoors is a priority for NatureScot.
Its CEO Francesca Osowska says: “One of the points the Curriculum for Excellence has reinforced in Scotland is the expectation pupils be given regular, frequent opportunities to learn outdoors because of the major benefits this brings. Learning for Sustainability (LfS), which includes Outdoor Learning, is an entitlement for all learners. From NatureScot’s perspective that’s amazing!”
Essentially, LfS aims to enable students, teachers, parents and wider communities to enjoy a more equitable society through outdoor learning that creates rewarding and transformative experiences.
“Learning in outdoor settings not only improves mental and physical health,” Francesca notes, “it can help with the challenges that see some children not do as well in a classroom setting … simply being outdoors can help.
“It stimulates a range of different conversations connected to the environment – it’s not just about learning about the environment as a subject.
“At the heart of what NatureScot does is getting young people to engage with nature at an early age and connect with their local greenspaces, from a local park to a more expansive area in a rural environment.
“This is the opportunity we’ve taken with the Outdoor Learning In Nature (OLIN) programme. This allowed us to engage with young people about the benefits of nature; why it’s good to care about nature; why plants, animals, the landscape and our weather are all such amazing things.
“The more people who know about this and the more young people begin to be passionate about it from a young age then the more we can nurture that connectedness.
“It’s also more likely as people get older they will still care and be active in supporting nature and the environment in a range of different ways.”
NatureScot’s pioneering Learning in Local Greenspace Project supported teachers in the delivery of outdoor learning.
“The benefits to teachers are huge and a really important part of this project was to equip them to feel confident in using an outdoor environment,” says Francesca.
“We’ve already seen the confidence levels of teachers increase from 54% before the project to 85%.”
NatureScot CEO Francesca Osowska
The use of local parks and greenspace helps children and young people learn how to value and explore the outdoors, as well as inspire healthy habits that should last a lifetime.
The Green Infrastructure Fund led by NatureScot has also had an impact by transforming neglected local spaces into cherished greenspaces. Teachers and pupils from Cathkin Primary School, for example, regularly use Fernbrae Meadows for learning. A similar experience is enjoyed by St Eunan’s pupils in Melfort Park in Clydebank.
The site of former St Eunan’s Primary School has been transformed into an urban park – complete with community growing spaces, active travel routes and areas for education.
Francesca believes we can do even more to enhance greenspaces for learning through investment in new GI projects, the creation of greenspaces in newbuild housing developments, regeneration projects and the adoption of 20-minute neighbourhoods.
She says: “It’s important we continue to bang the drum about building opportunities for outdoor learning into everyday school activity, allowing young people from all backgrounds to have the opportunities to engage, understand and help our natural world. Outdoor Learning also makes sense across all areas of the Curriculum as schools continue to grapple with the challenges of Covid-19.
“I do think there’s a growing recognition through all walks of society, whether that’s the teachers who are now more confident in outdoor learning or the pupils who are saying to the teachers: ‘Can we go do this lesson outside?’, to the designers, to parents … it’s a message on all channels.
“I feel we can’t over-communicate this but I also feel the audience and receptiveness are really growing and that’s great!”
New resource for teachers leads to knowledge growth
THE Learning in Local Greenspace (LILG) project grew from Scotland’s Biodiversity Route Map to 2020, a collaborative project initiated and led by NatureScot.
Enabling pupils to learn in greenspace close to schools and building teachers’ confidence, it focussed in disadvantaged areas, supporting 115 schools – 94 primary, 16 secondary and 5 additional support needs schools – across 12 local authorities and engaging more than 6000 pupils.
More than 6000 young people across 12 local authorities have enjoyed learning and getting creative in their local greenspaces. Photograph: Lorne Gill
An online toolkit, Beyond your Boundary: easy steps to learning in local greenspace, also helps engage schools and supports teachers’ professional learning.
As part of this, the Greenspace Map for Outdoor Learning has proven to be an invaluable resource for teachers to identify potential places to learn outdoors.
The Outdoor Learning in Nature Challenge Fund, meanwhile, has seen £390,000 invested in 18 partners directly working with schools over two phases of funding over three financial years.
A full evaluation report of LILG is not yet complete but initial feedback is positive.
Key findings include: The percentage of teachers feeling fairly or very confident has improved by 31% (baseline 54%, post-project 85%)
The percentage taking learning outdoors on a fairly regular/very regular basis has risen by 21% (baseline 28%, post-project 49%)
The percentage taking learning outdoors in school grounds on a fairly regular/very regular basis has risen by 31% (baseline 53%, post-project 84%)
The percentage who believe pupils’ connection to nature is good or excellent has risen by 18% (baseline 19%, post-project 37%)
The percentage who believe pupils’ engagement in learning outdoors is good or excellent has risen by 23% (baseline 56%, post-project 79%).