Mud, rocks and very cold hands: learning to love the outdoors

Tom Seaward asks how learning in the outdoors can help spark children’s interest in nature and the outdoors.

It was only as I turned to watch the bus cough its way uphill through the falling snow that I realised I’d left the bus without my gloves.

Here I was: gloveless and stuck outside Newcastle in the cold and the snow, about to be laughed out of Tyneside by a tough-as-nails National Trust Learning Co-ordinator. Feeling sorry for myself, I turned off and trudged along the road as it dropped down into a wooded valley, passing over the River Derwent. The road straightened and I peeled off to join a track that promised to take me to Gibside, a beautiful park laid out in the 18th Century by the coal baron George Bowes and now owned by the National Trust.

I was here to spend a day with Melanie Hills, who manages the Learning and Discovery Centre at Gibside, a residential learning and activity centre housed in the estate’s Georgian stables. As the new intern working on the Natural Childhood project, I wanted to get out into the real world and see how education and learning in the outdoors could help ‘reconnect children and nature’.  I had heard great things about Gibside and was really looking forward to spending a day with the learning team as they took a year three class from a local school around the estate, teaching them about rocks and soil. 

The Learning and Discovery Centre at Gibside

The Learning and Discovery Centre at Gibside is housed in the estate’s beautiful Georgian stables. ©National Trust Images/Robert Morris

I arrived just as the school bus pulled up. From it poured a chattering group of seven year olds, dressed in a startling chequerboard of colourful fleeces and waterproofs. In the field beyond, new-born lambs – wearing their own fluorescent orange fleeces to ward off the cold – showed only a passing interest. After a warm welcome from Melanie and her team of volunteers, we set off for the Stables.

A happy day was spent charging through the park finding the answers to a quiz on the history of the house and estate, using mud, stones and sticks to craft miniature versions of things we’d seen on the estate, and performing experiments to establish the properties of different rocks.

Particularly impressive was the playful and inventive way in which the needs of the curriculum were woven in to the day’s activities. The children were made to compare different kinds of rock – to look at the materials used on the buildings around them on the estate and describe what functions the different kinds of rock perform. Throughout the day, the children were encouraged to ‘use adjectives’ to describe what they were seeing.

What was important, then, was not so much learning about ‘The Outdoors’, but in the outdoors.

There is a growing trend towards this in the UK. Launched last month, the Forestry Commission in England’s new National Learning Strategy argues that learning opportunities in their woods and forests should be more encompassing and not confined to teaching groups about trees. In south-west England, Natural Connections, a pilot project funded by Natural England, English Heritage and the DEFRA, is working in partnership with local schools to help develop ‘Learning in the Natural Environment’ (LINE) solutions to problems the school is facing. The hope is to prove the usefulness of learning in the outdoors.

It’s something that many are convinced of already. Many schools can boast nature gardens or dedicated wild spaces. Initiatives like London-based Empty Classroom Day are all about taking learning into the outdoors and the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom recognises excellent outdoor learning providers with its LOtC Mark and Quality Badge kite marks. In Scotland, Outdoor Learning occupies a special place in the government’s education policy. Published in 2010, the Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning, stresses the importance of getting children learning away from the classroom. Although of central importance to the Early Years Foundation Stage of the National Curriculum for England, learning outdoors tends to get sidelined the further up the curriculum you get. Sadly, the new draft National Curriculum prescribes the use of the ‘local environment throughout the year’ for science teaching only. But at least it’s there, and I hope schools make the most of it.

It’s important that the curriculum contains advice like this because benefits of learning outdoors are clear. Research published last week by Plymouth University stressed the value of outdoor learning in supporting children’s development and independence. Like playing outside, learning in the outdoors can, in the words of the National Trust’s own Vision for Learning, help ‘foster a lifelong interest and understanding’ of nature. I could certainly see this during my day at Gibside. It was exciting to see the children engaging in so many different ways with the world around them. It’s gratifying, too, to hear that the children who come to the Stables with their school often return with their parents. It isn’t just a connection with nature that learning locally in the outdoors leads to, but a connection with place and the local environment, too.

Tom Seaward is the new intern working on the Natural Childhood project. He would like to thank Melanie Hills and the Learning and Discovery team at Gibside for their wonderful hospitality and for putting up with his many questions about their work and his inane thoughts about football.

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