Research: Could more education happen outside the classroom?

29 Mar 2021, 5:00

Research and a recent project shows how all schools can make greater use of outdoor spaces for the benefit of their pupils, writes Loic Menzies

A constant stream of teenagers trickled past my office window last summer. As schools closed their doors to most pupils, a decent chunk of Cambridge’s youth hit the meadows to spend a few months dive-bombing their peers – and some distinctly unimpressed swans.

That was a far cry from what happened elsewhere, as research from Natural England makes clear. Their survey of 1,501 8-15 year olds shows that six in ten children have spent less time outdoors since the start of coronavirus and more than four in five spent less time outside with friends. This trend was heavily skewed by background, with the most dramatic reductions found among children from ethnic minority backgrounds and poorer families.

As with so many of the pandemic’s effects, this exacerbated existing inequalities. In 2017 my team and I analysed five years of data on residential trips from over 10,000 establishments (mainly schools). We estimated that 1.8 million pupils participate in such activities each year. But schools serving disadvantaged pupils organise fewer residentials and when they do, they are less accessible to poorer pupils. The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan notes a similar trend stating that “the poorer you are… the less likely you are to enjoy ready access to green spaces.”

But does this matter and, if so, what can be done about it?

Seventy per cent of children said that they want to spend more time outdoors

It certainly matters to pupils. Seventy per cent of children in Natural England’s study said that they want to spend more time outdoors with friends in future. Meanwhile an Australian review by Keniger et al. categorises the purported benefits of interacting with nature as psychological, cognitive, physiological, social, spiritual and tangible. However, the authors note that studies often depend on self-report, are prone to sampling bias, make their measurements over short time-frames and frequently lack control groups.

On the other hand, there is relatively good evidence for ‘adventure learning’, with the EEF concluding that there are benefits for academic learning, particularly for vulnerable students and teenagers. Meanwhile a 2013 meta-analysis found moderate effects for ‘adventure therapy.

A 2017 Defra-funded “Natural Connections” programme involving 190 schools in the South West of England had a broader focus. 90 per cent of the surveyed teachers agreed that learning outside the classroom was useful for curriculum delivery but unfortunately, not all schools were surveyed and only perceived benefits were measured.

My colleagues and I at CfEY recently made an additional contribution to the evidence base, and the fact that our study took place in the context of Covid makes it particularly relevant to schools planning for educational recovery.

We used a battery of quantitative measures combined with detailed qualitative work to evaluate Learning through Landscape’s My School My Planet Project (MSMP). MSMP was funded through a Heritage Emergency Fund grant and ran in 49 schools last Autumn. The programme aimed to re-engage pupils in learning when they returned from the holidays, and to encourage a greater connection to natural heritage through outdoor learning. It particularly targeted disadvantaged ethnic groups and children from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Participating pupils increased their physical activity levels, developed new knowledge and felt more ‘useful’. They also described how MSMP helped them strengthen relationships and build new ones. This is particularly important given that ImpactEd have shown pupils are eager for opportunities to spend time with friends.

Sobel notes that learning about nature often means learning about endangered animals in distant countries, which does little to help children connect to what is more immediately around them. It was therefore encouraging to see that even schools with limited playground space made big changes that helped pupils connect to their immediate vicinity as part of the MSMP programme.

The government has pledged to “encourage children to be close to nature, in and out of school”. However, the pandemic has kept many pupils inside. My local teenagers were lucky to have easy (if not entirely legal or safe) access to outdoor space. But as schools reshape their provision, research suggests they could make greater use of outdoor space and, in doing so, help bridge yet another gulf that has widened this year.

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