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School reopening: providing high-quality outdoor learning
Learning outdoors makes it easier to maintain social distancing – and it supports pupils’ wellbeing too. Find out how to make the best use of whatever outdoor space you have and safely deliver high-quality outdoor lessons. Download our checklist of equipment staff will need as they take the classroom outside.
- Assess your available outdoor space
- Create a timetable to maximise the amount of time all pupils are outside
- Adapt your outdoor spaces so they’re better suited to learning
- Top tips for high-quality outdoor lessons
- Where to find outdoor learning activities and resources
- Download our outdoor learning checklist for staff
- Tell parents about outdoor learning and what they should provide
Assess your available outdoor space
Look at the outdoor space(s) you have available on your school site. This might just be your playground(s), but also consider whether there are any other outdoor spaces you can re-purpose, such as closing your car park to cars.
Complete a risk assessment for any areas you’re planning to use.
Divide up large outdoor spaces so more than 1 class group can use them
Use plastic cones or painted/chalk lines to divide up large spaces so multiple class groups can use them. Talk to the children about the importance of staying within these markings for their safety, in the same way you've discussed other health and safety measures. This should work for Key Stage (KS) 2 pupils, but will be harder to enforce for KS1 and reception children, so prioritise having this age group in a single, enclosed area.
Remember: children and staff need to be able to access toilets and hand-washing facilities from the outside area. If needed, create a hand-washing station outside with a small table, a water butt filled with warm water, a washing-up bowl, soap, paper towels and a bin to collect them (you can see an image here).
Create a timetable to maximise the amount of time all pupils are outside
Ideally, every 'bubble' would have a dedicated outdoor area to use whenever the teacher wants to take learning outside - but of course this won’t be possible for all schools. A maximised outdoor timetable is the next best thing.
Look at how many class groups you expect to have in school and how many children you can safely have in each outdoor space. Once you have this information, create an indoor/outdoor timetable for all groups to incorporate the maximum amount of time they can have outside.
When creating a timetable, include journey times between outside areas and classrooms, to minimise any crossover time outside or in corridors. Read up on how to reduce contact at busy hotspots.
Think of your outdoor space as an extension of the classroom
Don’t worry that you might be limiting pupils’ learning by timetabling them outdoors - this will be more than just 'playtime'. Outdoor learning also works in almost all weathers, so don't let weather fears put you off.
Adapt your outdoor spaces so they’re better suited to learning
Previously, your outdoor spaces might have been mainly for playing, but now they’re for learning too.
To get ideas for how to deliver continuous provision outdoors, talk your Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) team first about how they do this and ask for their help. You’re looking to replicate what they do for all your pupils, in an age-appropriate way.
Here are some other things you can do to make your spaces fit for purpose:
- Create different areas for different purposes: do this just as you would in the classroom. For example:
- Set up a a quiet corner area for reading or independent work
- Choose an appropriate space for the whole group to sit together comfortably and listen to the adult
- Use open areas for group work or play
- Create shade/shelter: this is key to keeping your outdoor area working in all weather conditions. Hang a play parachute or tarpaulin between walls or railings to create shade from the sun or shelter from gentle rain showers so children can stay outside for longer
- Create displays: use waterproof duct tape to put up laminated displays, similar to displays you might have in the classroom (e.g. number line, hundred square, key words) to create a learning environment outdoors
- Make sure children have something to sit on: they can sit on grass or wood, but if the ground is hard you could take classroom cushions outside, if possible, or consider investing in some easy-to-clean waterproof outdoor cushions. If none of these is possible, children can sit on jackets or jumpers
- Make sure children have something to write on: buy each class group a set of clipboards if you can (they’ll get plenty of use and can be cleaned regularly), or else use mini-whiteboards or hardback books with a bulldog clip on the top to attach a piece of paper
- Bring classroom furniture outdoors if it's safe to do so: if your pupils are in a small group, and the outdoor area is near their classroom, it should be possible for everyone to bring out their own chair. Risk assess this first
Bring the natural world into your outdoor area as much as possible
Nature provides endless opportunities for learning. If you can, create spaces to:
- Grow plants or plant seeds (in pots or raised beds)
- Find minibeasts
- Observe wildlife (put up bird feeders or bird boxes)
- Measure the weather and changing seasons (make weather-vanes, sundials or wind catchers)
Top tips for high-quality outdoor lessons
Outdoor learning can’t be exactly the same as indoor learning, so don’t expect it to be. High-quality outdoor learning is more open-ended and child-led than lessons in the classroom, and can be play-based for younger children. But it should be more structured and focused than playtime. These tips will help your staff get the balance right.
Establish the ground rules early on, and help children remember them at the beginning of every outdoor learning session
This could include rules like:
- “No picking, no licking” if children are unfamiliar with natural environments
- “You can pick up anything that’s on the ground, but not hold it above shoulder height”
- Exactly where they can and can’t go
- What to do if they get too hot, cold or hurt themselves
- General expectations for outdoor areas (children without gardens at home may have forgotten)
Don't stick to strict lesson plans or timings, but take a more open-ended approach
Outdoor learning time can just be “outdoor learning time” or it can be subject-specific. Have learning objectives for the week rather than the lesson and see when you achieve them (it might be on Wednesday rather than by Friday).
Let children explore and complete activities at their own pace, allowing for unexpected conversations and detours. However, mark session with:
- Beginning: establish or remind children of ground rules and explain any specific activities
- Middle: have a water/snack break (all sitting in a circle, in shade/under shelter)
- End: a calming activity (like listening to a story) to prepare pupils for going back indoors
To get the whole group’s attention, use a signal that protects your voice, like a whistle or tambourine (your voice won’t carry like it does indoors).
Put anxieties about following the National Curriculum or pupils' academic progress to one side for now
Focus on rebuilding pupils’ social, emotional, speaking and listening skills through opportunities for conversations and group work, outdoor circle time, turn-taking games and imaginative play.
Use outdoor learning as an opportunity to rebuild your relationship with pupils. Build in times for children to talk to you about things that aren’t related to the learning activities if they want to (e.g. when watering plants or playing together) - show warm, open body language and listen actively.
Connect learning to the outdoor environment
If you try to do a normal phonics or maths lesson outside, there will be inevitable distractions, so make these “distractions” the focus of the learning. For example:
- Do a minibeast hunt and classification for science
- Collect rainwater and measuring capacity for maths
- Ask children to write a poem about what they can see
Natural spaces also provide resources: sticks, leaves, and stones can be played with or used in lessons (counting stones, acting out a story using stick people, tracing leaves) and thrown away or composted after children have touched them.
Outdoor learning works in almost all weather conditions, as long as you and the children have the right clothing
Make sure you have a warm coat or sunhat and sun cream if needed. With the exception of heavy rain, thunder or lightning, outdoor learning can continue in most weather conditions (again, talk to your EYFS team about how best to manage this).
Where to find outdoor learning activities and resources
The following organisations have a wide selection of free outdoor learning ideas for a range of different age groups and outdoor settings:
- 101 Woodchip activity ideas, Woodcraft Folk
- Forest School activity ideas, Forest School Association
- Outdoor lesson ideas, Learning Through Landscapes
- Outdoor lesson resources, Outdoor Classroom Day
- Outdoor challenge, Girlguiding Worcestershire
- Scouts activities, The Scout Association
- Wild activities for families and schools, The Wildlife Trusts
- Wild activities, Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust
Download our outdoor learning checklist for staff
This checklist covers:
- Everything staff need to take outside with them for a high-quality and safe outdoor learning session
- Health and safety materials
Tell parents about outdoor learning and what they should provide
As you would for anything new you’re doing in school, let parents know that children will be learning more outdoors. You can add the following text to a letter or email to parents, or to your school website:
"If your child is returning to school, they will be outdoors more often than usual. This is to make it easier to follow social distancing guidelines and for the health of pupils and staff.
Please send your child to school in appropriate clothing for the weather, and appropriate clothing for playing outside (comfortable clothes and shoes, clothes that you don't mind getting dirty)."
If you have a set timetable, let parents know how often and which days children will be learning outdoors.
Tell parents what you’d like them to provide. This might include:
- Weatherproof clothing: waterproof coat, wellies, old clothes that they don’t mind getting wet or dirty
- Warm weather protection: sun hat, sun cream, water bottle
- A spare change of clothes to keep at school
For advice on this article we spoke to Kate Brown and Roger Chapman, who are experienced Forest School and Woodcraft Folk practitioners. They are currently Forest School volunteers at a primary school in North London.
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