Convincing reluctant staff to embrace outdoor learning: 4 tips for Outdoor Learning Leaders

March 19, 2021

Deciding to take more of the curriculum outdoors within your weekly teaching practice is an easy decision to make, especially once you’re aware of all the academic, emotional and social benefits it brings. If you’re an outdoor learning subject leader, the chances are you’re already passionate about spending time outdoors and have witnessed the many benefits of outdoor learning for yourself. However, convincing the rest of your team to take up the same approach can sometimes be a little more challenging!

Within our members community we have lots of outdoor learning leaders and many of them have faced this same hurdle. It can be a real challenge to convey the benefits of outdoor learning to other staff members, especially when there’s often many other initiatives being implemented into your school’s curriculum or staff members have their own reservations about embracing the great outdoors.

So how do we encourage those reluctant staff members to step out of the comfort of their classrooms and experience the benefits of outdoor learning?

Lead by example and share your outdoor learning successes

Any effective subject leader will naturally become passionate about their area of expertise. After all, you have attended all of the training and put it into practice in your own room. But take a moment to reflect on what you do to share this with the wider school community.

A display board is a great place to start! Try to bag yourself a board in a space where staff are likely to walk past and notice it, keep it updated with photographs and explanations of what you have been up to, maybe even detailing how the outdoor sessions have had an impact on follow up work in class, progress and of course the children’s soft skills too. A nifty little trick is to update the board at a time when staff are likely to be passing by it (maybe during that after school tea top up trip to the staffroom?) This gives you the opportunity to engage staff members in conversation about your recent outdoor lessons!

Image credit: @seahorseclasseyfs1 Instagram

Your next step is to start talking openly about outdoor learning. If you have just had a brilliant outdoor session with your class, bring it up in conversation! Whilst some staff members may raise an eyebrow and initially shrug off your experience, others are likely to listen with intrigue. Especially if they can sense your own invigoration and joy!

Find out staff attitudes and barriers to being outdoors

Not everyone is a naturally ‘outdoorsy’ person, primary teachers especially, often have wide and varied preferences and interests. If you’re leading a staff meeting, take this as an opportunity to get to know your colleagues personally. Asking them to record and share their most memorable childhood memory is a great way to do this. It’s quite likely that many will unknowingly cite an outdoor experience such as a family camping holiday, exploring nature or having fun outdoors with friends. This is because outdoor experiences are proven to be much more memorable to us from childhood!

This insight is incredibly useful for outdoor learning leaders as studies have shown that “an adult’s attitude to the environment and time spent outdoors in green space is strongly influenced by their experience as a child” (Bird, 2007). Therefore, if you have staff members who recall positive childhood experiences of the outdoors, it’s likely that providing another positive experience invoking the same feelings of freedom and joy will quickly bring those staff members on board with the approach. Once reminded of those feelings and benefits it’s likely they will want to share them with their own class of children.

On the flip side, if you have staff members who have very little experience of the outdoors, this is still useful information to you. If this is the case, it highlights the need to provide multiple, positive, outdoor experiences for those staff members to firstly engage with outdoor learning. If they hold a perception that spending time outdoors is not enjoyable, staff are highly unlikely to resonate with the benefits of outdoor learning when you share them.

Instead consider some outdoor team building activities (think den building, campfires, even some orienteering) to build some positive experiences of the outdoors. At the end of these outdoor staff meetings, encourage your colleagues to share how they’re feeling and compare it to how they might have felt had the meeting been delivered to them indoors in the usual format. Having a couple of studies up your sleeve to validate their feelings will quickly have staff reflecting on how their classes could benefit in the same ways!

Encourage small steps

When working with outdoor learning leaders, we have found quite a strong correlation between the type of outdoor spaces available to staff and how much they are used. So far we have found that the schools with extensive outdoor spaces (think woodland areas, school fields, growing patches, ponds as well as playgrounds) are the settings that find their outdoor spaces most underutilised.

Quite often there is a simple explanation for this; overwhelm. There’s too much choice in the outdoor environments which equals too many variables to manage and if staff don’t feel equipped with the knowledge to teach in these differing outdoor spaces, in the end it becomes the simple choice to stick to the comfort of the classroom.

If this is the case for your team, we suggest starting with encouraging some small steps. Simple, chalk based activities on the playground right outside the classroom door, which lift the same kind of book based work onto a bigger canvas are a great start. The children are familiar with what is expected of them and it allows the staff to get comfortable with having those walls removed, bear in mind this can be really quite uncomfortable if you have only ever taught indoors! It’s also not far to travel back into the classroom and doesn’t require much extra planning for suitable clothing, as the children’s attire for lunch/break times should be suitable.

From this point forward, staff can build their confidence and move at a pace which they feel comfortable; exploring new outdoor environments and introducing different activity styles when they feel ready. Once your team begins to reap the benefits of outdoor learning through the children’s deepened levels of engagement, development of key skills and they witness the children’s levels of well-being increase; it’s highly likely their outdoor lessons will snowball and evolve! So don’t over complicate those first few experiences, lift the pressure to go all out, encouraging staff to keep them short, simple and manageable.

Provide resources and support

The next step to leading outdoor learning successfully is providing access to valuable, high-quality resources. Yes your colleagues will likely need some basic outdoor equipment, but where are they going to collect new activity ideas from? This can create a real stumbling block for staff. It’s no good getting them motivated to teach outdoors if they’re not sure what to deliver when they get out there!

The outdoors requires a switch up in gears in terms of teaching style. Learning should be active and hands-on, to keep children on task. Then there is the consideration of making the most of what the outdoor environment has to offer; bringing in real-life contexts where appropriate. It can be quite a lot to get your head around and that’s without tying in National Curriculum objectives. Planning effective outdoor lessons is a skill that takes time and experience, just as your classroom practice does.

To save your staff time and help them learn the ropes to planning effective outdoor lessons, take a look at the Outdoor Planning Hub where you can access 100s of curriculum-based, outdoor lesson plans for KS1, LKS2 & UKS2. They’re designed to be grab and go, suit a range of outdoor environments and can be adapted as your team requires. Delivering these lesson plans will arm your team with a wealth of outdoor activity ideas and help them to feel confident in taking the curriculum outdoors.

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So there you have our top 4 tips for supporting your staff with outdoor learning. If you have questions or have faced a challenge not listed here, contact us on our social media channels. There’s a wealth of support and information we can direct you on towards to help you overcome barriers to outdoor learning. If you’re a Planning Hub subscriber already, don’t forget to reach out into our private community, where others may have already solved the problem you’re facing!