The following article comes from Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco, Leader of Wellbeing and Positive Education at Southlands British International School Rome, Italy.

Having taught in The Netherlands for seven years, I have recently moved to a new role in Rome, Italy. Two very different settings, in two very different climates, with very different needs and priorities. Except for their English curriculum, they don’t have much in common and I am enjoyed the challenges of adapting to a new school environment.

To my delight, however, both schools appreciate the enormous value of Outdoor Learning. As an experienced Wellbeing and Mental Health Leader, I can’t help but focus on the significant benefits to both student and staff wellbeing that come from Outdoor Learning. Indeed, the UK Education watchdog, OFSTED concluded in a 2008 report analysing the impact of outdoor learning that “When planned and implemented well, learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development.”

As a Class Teacher of Years 4, 5 and 6, here are just a few examples of how I have witnessed this:

Sensory Exploration

During wellbeing sessions, students have connected with nature through their senses. Activities have included walking barefoot on grass (it’s surprising how many students have never done this), cloud gazing and learning to identify plants through scent alone.

In the moment, most students are visibly more relaxed and enjoy the opportunity to take a step away from the more demanding rhythm of the classroom. Yet it has often been later that I have understood the true benefits of these sessions.

Parents have shared, amazed, how their child chose to cloud gaze to calm down after an argument; play-time supervisors have noticed when a frustrated student decided to take some time out in the ‘Quiet Garden’; and children have described how they collected lavender from their garden and put in a pouch under their pillow to help them sleep.

Whether planned sessions or spontaneous, short activities, remember that simple opportunities like this are helping students build up a precious toolkit of coping skills (even if you don’t notice it at the time).

Active, Outdoor Brain Breaks

In the UK, many schools have adopted the Daily Mile; in The Netherlands, we had the Brain Break K; and in Rome I sense my class needs to move and whisk them outside to break up the day. Research shows how invaluable movement is for concentration and therefore learning; add to that a few minutes to reconnect with nature, and the benefits can only increase. Whether it’s a ten minute run around the playground or star jumps and running on the spot where space is more limited, it provides a welcome blast of fresh air, gets heartbeats racing and often inspires moments of laughter, connection and collaboration. All of this is conducive to a more vibrant, positive learning environment once returning to the classroom and, research has also shown, helps students retain information.

Structured Outdoor Learning Lessons

In both of my schools, I have had the privilege to work with teachers who are qualified Outdoor Learning practitioners. Whilst watching and learning from them, apart from the benefits already mentioned, it struck me how important these structured lessons are for developing resilience.

All too often, our students are in their comfort zones and / or protected from taking risks. Outdoor Learning provides a valuable opportunity to step away from this. Under the guidance of qualified instructors, I have watched them thrive on the challenge of tasks such as building a shelter in the pouring rain and lighting a fire with fire-strikers.

Neither task was easy and, on completion, the sense of satisfaction, pride and joy was highly evident. Once again this is both positive in the moment and beneficial for the future. On the next occasion a student is struggling, they can be reminded about the resilience they showed when fire-making, as well as all those positive emotions they experienced having persevered and succeeded.

Dan Melbourne, the Outdoor Learning Specialist at my current school, radiates enthusiasm for the many benefits of embedding it into the school curriculum for all ages. He reflected that:

  • It creates new and unusual opportunities for students to demonstrate learning and leadership skills and usually it’s the students who aren’t so confident in the classroom who get more from it.
  • It can make classes bond together in a different way, having a shared experience with the whole class and not just a group of friends.
  • It’s an amazing equaliser, it doesn’t matter what you have at home or how much you have, it brings everyone to a level playing field, and it’s more about your effort to complete something.
  • Being away from technology and social media is one of the best things about being outdoors for me, especially in teenagers. Giving them the space to be away from it but also an excuse to not be on it. It makes us focus on the people we are with, not the versions of people we see online.
  • Ultimately, it’s a chance to reset and forget about the stresses of day to day life.

Discussing Outdoor Learning with such an enthusiastic specialist was an important reminder to me as a Class Teacher that I must make time for it. As with many other areas of our role in supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing, we mustn’t fall into the trap of prioritising academics over emotional and social skills. The two must be taught in parallel, with equal priority, and Outdoor Learning is an excellent example of how that can be achieved.