Establishing an effective outdoor learning environment

June 10, 2020

For today’s blog post we would like to introduce the very lovely Anna! We met Anna at a conference, her abundance in energy instantly won us over and we were thrilled when she won our raffle prize; an outdoor workshop for the children at her school. Whilst we were visiting, she took the time to show us the outdoor area she had developed for her Early Years. We loved how she had intricately combined nature with learning opportunities and so we asked if she would be willing to share her journey around developing it with you here!

Anna is an Early Years Leader at Aysgarth School, with Level 3 Forest School Training. Throughout her varied career she has taught as Lead Teacher in KS2 at a small rural primary school and also taught in a large primary school. She also grew up on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales, so her love of the outdoors runs in her blood. She has many childhood memories of outdoor adventures and a firm grasp on respecting and nurturing the land; a quality she teaches both at school and at home to her family.

So we’ll hand over to you Anna . . .

I was honoured when Hollie and Jenny asked me to write a blog on outdoor learning and as a result I have taken the time to reflect upon my life, and what drives me as a teacher. If I was to condense this into one word, I think it would be ‘fun’. I truly believe that ‘fun’ is the catalyst to effective learning but also life in general. If you see someone having fun you are naturally drawn to it and that’s where the journey begins!

My outdoor learning journey began with running weekly Forest School afternoons at my previous school for all ages. The wonder of creativity and imagination within nature enables endless opportunities. Alfresco Learning are amazing advocates for this and are inspiring so many teachers out there to ‘give it a go’, there is life beyond the classroom!

In my current school, we have beautiful grounds to explore; ranging from a walled garden, expanse of woodland, sensory garden and open pasture.  For the last two years I have been delivering Forest School sessions with a Year 3 Class and my own Reception Class.

Nursery and Reception also experience regular outdoor adventures throughout the week. However, my main focus has been on the Early Years Garden. Now in our fourth year of development, it certainly has taken some time to establish as part of our continuous provision, rather than being an occasional ‘let’s go outside’ space. My main focus has been to provide a changeable dynamic, to incorporate all ages and interests of the children who accessed the space.

Previously, the children had free access to the garden but there was a clear divide between those who wanted to run around (generally the boys) and those who preferred to be inside, the girls. It was clear that the low level of engagement and negative behaviour happening outside, was outweighing the purposeful learning and skill development that we were striving for. More importantly, it was not being accessed by all of the children.

By observing how the garden was being used, I initially saw that the resources were gender biased. Big trucks and diggers dominated, there was little scope for a diverse range of play. Children are driven by curiosity and interest, and unfortunately I felt we were not ticking these boxes. Sadly it wasn’t an exciting or an engaging learning environment.

My first task was to remove all of the plastic toys. Not only unpleasant to look at, they also restricted the scope of play. We replaced them with open ended resources such as planks, different lengths of hazel branches, old tyres, cargo nets etc. A few trips to charity shops also provided us with unusual jugs, bowls, spoons, pieces of material and artefacts.

It is at this point that I have to mention Alistair Bryce-Clegg. His whole approach to open ended resources and steering away from the way we ‘set up’ areas was invaluable. After attending one of his courses and reading several of his books I reflected upon our expectations and how we delivered our provision. We started to think about how we could accommodate the needs and interests of all the children.

Browsing through all of the Early years catalogues and scrolling through Pinterest, gave me the materials to set our mood board. Now we just needed to put it all together! The main structures you can see were all built in school. The Early Years Garden now has a reading pod, stage, mud kitchen, child friendly taps and sink, a large square sandpit, covered storage units and planters!

The plastic is gone and the amount of resources has rapidly reduced. Our key motto is ‘less is more’. The willow dome is now established and we have bird tables and bug houses, so there is a balance starting to be created of manmade, natural looking resources and nature. Stage one was completed!

However, a warning does come at this point. Just because your outdoor area looks good, it doesn’t mean that the children will immediately start doing what you expect them to do.

My advice is to believe in yourself and your vision. Learning to use an outdoor area takes time and certainly doesn’t happen overnight! When you think your ‘ideal’ still isn’t working, wait, wait and wait again. The magic WILL happen eventually.

“The feeling you get when you see the children’s creativity blossom, the fun and laughter and their amazing ability to interpret resources into the unimaginable is incredible.

Their engagement and ability to problem solve, their perseverance to reach their end goal and ability to negotiate with one another starts to show. Collaboration, shared thinking, communication…the list goes on. The joy of children and why we are in this profession starts to unfold in front of you and it is totally worth the wait!  I am so lucky to have an amazing team and we all share the same vision. We are always striving to improve but so far, our playful approach to teaching and learning has empowered the children as they are now confident to discover and explore, immersing themselves in their play.

Our guidance and support has inspired them and brought to life a world of imagination and the magic of play. Here enters the genius that is Greg Bottrill.  His latest book has been my Easter holiday read! Now that our environment is working, our next steps are towards enhancing our practice. He is so incredibly inspiring and so now the next stage begins.

I have been incredibly fortunate to be supported by my Headteachers around outdoor learning and have been able to establish my vision for outdoor learning. As teachers, many may face restraints & hoops to leap through, but please don’t give up. We know our children and they are at the heart of everything we do. Change is hard at the best of times, but little steps are better than nothing. Believe in yourself and trust your gut feeling, outdoor learning is definitely the way forward for us all. Good Luck!

Thank you Anna for sharing so much into how you developed your inspiring outdoor area! We hope you’ve been inspired by our lovely member and are bubbling over with ideas for developing your own outdoor space now! If you’re looking for further support in developing your outdoor spaces around your school setting, take a look at our newly launched staff training!