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‘Outdoor Learning’: Pandemic Could Force Classrooms Outside

Georgie Chantrell-Plant reveals the possible solution to teaching children during the coronavirus pandemic

Photo by Annie Spratt

With the current conversation centering around when it will be possible for children to return to school in light of the coronavirus pandemic, First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is embracing the model of Outdoor Learning.

The benefits and possibilities of the approach are being explored to ascertain how the vast availability of outdoor space in Scotland could be utilised as a safe learning environment, keeping social distancing at the forefront of the proposal.

Sturgeon has warned that a full re-opening and return to schools in Scotland won’t be until August at the earliest, and local authorities are already exploring how outdoor spaces can be used to enable social distancing within classes.

Outdoor Learning is already part of Scotland’s ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ as educators believe it could bring benefits, not only for the reduced risk of virus-transmission amongst pupils and teachers, but also for improved eyesight, immune system resilience, environmental empathy and even risk assessment abilities.

“In the classroom the kids ask permission to do this or that, but outside they are much more creative and don’t need an adult to lead them. This is what early-years education should be, child-centred and child-led.” - Amanda Patrick, Early Years Officer

During lockdown, outdoor nurseries have provided relief and solace to numerous members of the community and key workers faced with childcare issues. Zoe Sills, who runs the Earthtime Forest Nursery in Elgin, claims: “When you’ve got the natural world at your fingertips, you don’t need so many toys, which means fewer surfaces where the virus can be passed on.”

Swing and Roundabouts

It is a prevalent concern that introducing a return to school in the midst of a pandemic could exacerbate the damage early-years education has already undergone, as it limits the amount of students able to interact and learn in the same space due to health-and-safety concerns, thus putting even more of a strain on the teaching staff. Chief executive of Stramash social enterprise, Ken Forsyth, echoes this by saying, “You can manage and control infection risk better outdoors [but] the biggest single issue is that there are not enough [teachers] to go round.”

There are also practical issues associated with the proposal such as inclement weather disrupting studying, lack of resources such as computers outdoors, and a shortage of safe outdoor spaces in some areas. Not only that, but some parenting blogs express concern that moving schooling outside could bring into question whether a child would be able to adapt back into a ‘normal school environment’ when the pandemic is over.

This isn’t just a recent venture however, as a study conducted in 2008 shows early iterations of the ‘Forest School Approach’ which “involves children having regular contact with woodland over an extended period of time; it allows them to become familiar, and have contact, with the natural environment.”, something the study concludes in an “inspirational process” which gives children “opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem”.

Whilst the benefits of this proposal could prove to be numerous, and the model is arguably necessary for the reintroduction of pupils into education, it poses some challenges. If this model is to be successful, emphasis needs to be placed on inclusivity for all students in order to ensure that children from families of all economic backgrounds have access to the same provisions.

“This absolutely can apply to everyone. If you look at the history of outdoor provision, it has been dominated by articulate middle-class parents who recognise the good it can do, so now we have a job to do with parents, too, especially younger parents who screen children themselves.” - Glasgow city council’s early-years manager, Heather Douglas

Outdoor Schooling could be a substantial culture shock for many, and it is a practice that requires a lot of resources and support in order for it to be a success, something the education system may struggle to cope with in light of the current restrictions on society. It is undeniable however, that being outdoors will always prove beneficial to both children and adults alike, regardless of whether there is a pandemic or not. Just another step towards embracing the ‘new normal’ for Scotland and beyond.


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