What would happen if we helped build capacity within our primary schools by training the teachers to lead the sessions, creating outdoor learning areas in the schools or in woodlands within walking distance?
Much has been made of the benefits of engaging with and learning in the outdoors. The evidence for the positive impacts both to education and child development is compelling and the need in our young people is, sadly, growing.
One of my most vivid memories from primary school is sitting under a horse chestnut tree in the heat of summer, its vast canopy casting a welcome shade over a class of excited six year olds, sorting leaves into piles. That memory is now some 45 years old and yet it has stayed with me above all the clamour and noise of my youth.
These memories can be powerful for us all, imprinting on our formative years and creating a sense of amazement, belonging even. I often wonder whether those classes in the outdoors were the beginning of my own affinity with the natural world.
It breaks my heart to read that one in ten young people has a mental health problem, and that 28 percent of our young people are overweight or obese.
Childhood should be a time of carefree enjoyment, when our children should be active and bursting with energy. It seems odd then that despite our understanding of these issues and the obvious benefits of outdoor learning, it is still not mainstream in our schools.
Trees are thankfully not just memories for me but part of my work as an Environmentalist and Chief Executive of the National Forest Company. Here, we decided to see how many of the 88 primary schools in the 200 square miles of forest (which spans parts of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire in the UK) are involved in regular outdoor learning – that is, learning in a natural setting at least once a month.
What we found was that even in these 200 square miles of the Midlands where the natural environment is high up the agenda, less than a fifth of our primary schools met the standard and, not surprisingly, those that did were ones with extensive grounds, greater resources or their own transport.
This situation seems to be mirrored across the whole country, where there are pockets of excellent work going on but, overall, provision is very patchy.
When you dig down into the reasons we don’t mainstream outdoor learning, it gets more complicated. Some will say that the National Curriculum doesn’t really prioritise outdoor learning or that it is not a prerequisite for an outstanding Ofsted rating, others that it is too expensive to take children off-site or that there simply isn’t time in the day.
Of course, all of these are true to some extent, but are they really the barriers holding us back? I can’t help feeling that the problem is actually more systemic – we don’t do it simply because we haven’t done it, not because it isn’t possible. What we have failed to do is to embed outdoor learning in the fabric of teaching within schools.
I would argue that as environmentalists, we have focused too much on delivering the teaching and not enough on really enabling the schools to do it themselves.
We asked ourselves in the National Forest what would happen if we helped build capacity within our primary schools by training the teachers to lead the sessions, creating outdoor learning areas in the schools or in woodlands within walking distance, and bringing outdoor learning into school improvement plans.
This evolved into a simple Five Point Plan designed to target funds to what we felt would make outdoor learning sustainable. It’s so simple that we think every school in the country could adopt it – with a little support, guidance and modest funding. No waiting for changes to the National Curriculum, no worries about travelling off-site, and no reliance on having to find transport.
The Plan is being launched by the new Forestry Minister, David Rutley MP, and the former Education Secretary, the Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP in the House of Commons on 23 October 2018.
So, the challenge is on, and so far the Plan is working. We’ve doubled the number of schools with regular provision – from less than 20 percent to more than 40 percent - with others taking on more frequent outdoor learning activity.
Next year we think we’ll reach 50 percent of schools, and from there to 100 percent within five years. That will be pretty amazing – that every school child in the National Forest will grow up experiencing regular outdoor learning.
And who knows what difference this will make? We hope it will be a catalyst to create a generation that understands and cares; for schools to want to take children off-site or on residential stays; for more bushcraft and family activities out of school; for better teacher training with our local universities; for governors and school leaders to champion the benefits; and ultimately a catalyst for children to grow up healthier and happier.
If we succeed, I’m convinced we will be creating the environmentalists of the future and, no doubt, making more memories that will last a lifetime.
Further details and the National Forest Five Point Plan can be found here.
John Everitt is a British environmentalist who has spent more than 25 years in nature conservation. He is the chief executive of the National Forest Company, responsible for coordinating the creation and management of the 200 square mile National Forest in the Midlands, UK. Stay updated by following @NatForestCo on Twitter.