Why boundary games are essential to effective outdoor teaching

January 14, 2022

Let’s set the scene; you have your outdoor lesson plan ready, you prepare your children to ensure they are correctly clothed, you’re delivering your outdoor lesson…but then things go a little awry. When you get outside it’s hard to initially capture your children’s attention. Then you finally get there, but before you’ve finished your explanation of the starter activity you have already lost a third of them again. When you finally hit a flow state, you find you have to hurry your class along, as the moans about cold fingers begin to get louder. You also finish the session with a sore throat from repeatedly calling the children back from behind a wall at the edge of your playground. Then you head back inside, sit down on your chair with a huff and wonder whether all those people who say they feel refreshed after teaching a lesson outdoors are just plain bonkers, as you feel nothing but dazed.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For the majority of us, we never received any formal training in taking the curriculum outdoors during our teacher training, so it makes sense that we apply the ‘starter, main and plenary’ format from our indoor lessons to the outdoors. But in doing this you have missed the key component to a successful outdoor lesson: boundary games.

Whilst game is in the name, these activities offer much more than an opportunity to play.

Boundary games define your working space

We always advise beginning your session by including the children in deciding the boundary for your working space (this is where you will deliver your lesson). Giving the children this sense of responsibility gives them an ownership over the lesson and makes it less likely that you will have to reinforce the boundary as they have decided it for themselves! Obviously you need to make sure that the agreed boundaries are safe, so it’s best to keep this as a discussion between you and your class.

The purpose of playing the boundary game after establishing your boundaries is to provide an opportunity for your children to practise staying within them. So don’t worry if they run right up to the perimeter of where you have asked them to stay, they’re just exploring the space and working out where they can freely roam. If they do wander over the boundary, pause the game and let them know!

Establishing your outdoor working space helps to reduce your anxiety too. Especially if you’re someone who is new to outdoor learning or feels a bit exposed outside without the comfort of physical walls to keep your children together! Feeling at ease (but still vigilant!) about your children staying within your working space is important so you can remain focused on teaching and learning.

Top Tip

Some children may need a physical marker for the edge of the boundary. If this is the case, we advise using a colourful ribbon; you can tie it to trees, bushes or fences. If you need to add in a visual boundary in an open space, you could tie your ribbon to a stick that’s pushed into the ground or bring out a cone from your PE cupboard.

Boundary games establish behaviour for learning

It’s common for Early Years and KS1 to have dedicated outdoor provision which they can then use for delivering the curriculum. But for the rest of us, taking our everyday lessons outdoors means utilising playgrounds, school fields and school gardens. These are places our children tend to associate with lunch and break times. So when you take them outdoors to these areas, no matter how well our children can self-regulate and focus, their minds are going to be diverting them towards playing.

Now if you’re taking a child-led, play based approach to the outdoors, this is great! But here at Alfresco Learning we focus on taking National Curriculum objectives outside through active learning and nature connections. If you are trying to establish a similar approach, you need to help the children understand that the space is being used for learning, not break time.

Playing a boundary game at the start of your session helps bridge between the urge to play and listening to you. It provides an opportunity to run off some energy before getting focused on the task at hand. If you keep to the same couple of boundary games for each of your outdoor lessons, it will help you establish a clear routine. Your children will also come to anticipate the learning activities you have prepared for them, meaning behaviour for learning is established and you will spend much less of your time trying to creatively capture everyone’s attention!

Boundary games help your class keep warm!

If you’re in the UK, then you’ll be no stranger to bright red, numb fingers and the chilling winter wind! Cold temperatures can easily put you off taking your class outdoors, but when you have a handful of boundary games up your sleeve, this needn’t be the case!

It does make sense to plan activities which are more physically active in cold weather, as standing still is a fast track to feeling very uncomfortable. However, some learning objectives call for close up observations and sit down discussions. In these instances, we love to pepper our lessons with boundary games. They are so easy to adapt to the context of what you’re learning about and by creating some fast paced movement regularly throughout the session, your children are sure to keep toasty warm. Just make sure you join in to benefit too!

Best of all, if you already use these boundary games regularly to begin your lessons with, they don’t disrupt or take away from the learning, as your class is already used to following up the game with a focused learning activity!

So now you understand the theory behind using boundary games in your outdoor lessons, you need to know some boundary games you can use right? Below we have created two guides, one for KS1 and the other for KS2. Each features a handful of boundary games we have tried and tested with several classes of children, so you can be sure they are effective in helping your children understand their working space, establishing behaviour for learning and keeping warm during these cold winter months!

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