Why learn in local greenspace?
Primary 1, 2 and the ASN Unit from Easter Carmuirs Primary School all worked with Under the Trees (UTT) on their Nature’s Ambassadors project, supported by NatureScot’s Outdoor Learning in Nature fund. The school was keen to learn in local greenspaces to provide more outdoor learning opportunities and experiences for the pupils and boost staff confidence in leading outdoor learning.
Many young people in the area face challenges around social isolation and unemployment and have issues at home, such as unsafe areas and financial constraints. The project aimed to give young people a chance to engage and learn about our natural world, a chance to be children away from the stresses of life, and a chance to learn new skills and experience different ways of learning that will benefit them later in life.
Finding your local greenspace
Easter Carmuirs is based in Camelon, Falkirk. The nearest greenspace, Nailer Park, was used by the school but was busy with dogs and, at the time, had issues with needles etc. This has since improved but instead the school worked with Under the Trees in a fantastic area at the Falkirk Wheel known as The Secret Garden, about a 20 minute walk away. The Secret Garden was away from the tourists arriving at The Wheel and provided a great source of exploration and discovery. Easter Carmuirs had not used this area before but had accessed other nearby areas, e.g. The Antonine Wall.
Accessing your local greenspace
Under the Trees work with a number of schools in the Falkirk area and have good relationships with local land owners and managers, such as Forestry and Land Scotland, Falkirk Council, Falkirk Community Trust and Scottish Wildlife Trust. They feel that it should be much easier for schools and others to find the owners of sites, as this can cause delays. Before using the Secret Garden with Easter Carmuirs, Under the Trees contacted Scottish Canals and a staff member came along and supported the school too.
Under the Trees find that most of the children they work with are not used to walking any distance and, in particular, not used to the uneven ground of a woodland environment. Some children found the short walk to the local greenspace very tiring, as they were not used to the physical exertion.
There were lots of trips and falls in the greenspace and several children regularly bumped heads on tree branches, requiring an ice pack. This was a lot to do with building resilience and getting used to being in a woodland, which improved over the weeks. Incidents and accidents can be off putting for staff and pupils but if they are dealt with quickly and calmly they soon blow over. It is important to work with staff to think about how and why these issues arose. Regular and frequent visits also help.
Under the Trees worked with a number of schools in the Falkirk area who serve some of the most disadvantaged areas in Scotland. Most schools faced challenges around getting the right pupil: adult ratios and many staff lacked confidence to learn in local greenspace. The Easter Carmuirs ASN unit faced additional challenges as they needed more staff; had to accommodate pupils’ personal requirements; and found the 20 minute walk particularly challenging.
Using your local greenspace
Classes visited the Secret Garden fortnightly with Under the Trees, with the expectation that the class teacher would take the pupils on alternate weeks. This was daunting for the teachers at first but, gradually, more and more rose to the challenge, supported by ‘homework’ set by Under the Trees.
Activities in the greenspace were selected and created to link to Curriculum for Excellence, class topics and pupil and staff interests. Easter Carmuirs took part in a range of activities including learning about minibeasts; creating log piles and bird feeders; den and shelter building; natural art and tree measuring.
Pupils enjoyed the opportunity.
“My favourite part was when we made a volcano and it exploded everywhere, my second favourite was the treasure hunt [map reading].”
“My favourite part was free time”
“Roasting marshmallows and building a class den, also the bug hunt, fire, the marshmallows were so good”
“Meeting my own tree was the best! [Meet a Tree is a blindfold activity]
Improving your local greenspace
Classes also worked with Scottish Canals, who led sessions about the canal as well as practical conservation tasks to help tidy the site. This involved rebuilding bug hotels that had fallen to pieces, removing dead tree branches and a general tidy up of the site. This was well received with the pupils and everyone really got stuck in.
Spreading and embedding learning in local greenspace
The approach of Under the Trees and the class teachers each taking turn about to lead a session in the greenspace worked really well. By observing and taking part in activities during visits with Under the Trees, plus taking part in specific training on tool use and risky play, teachers gained the skills and confidence to help them continue learning in local greenspace.
“We are so pleased to see on Twitter that our classes are continuing to go out after we have stopped working with them, and we have kept in touch to offer support as required.”
“This has been a fantastic opportunity for my class, I didn’t have the skills or confidence to take them outdoors, so I have taken a lot away from sessions to carry out”
When schools returned after the first COVID-19 lockdown, there was a big push on outdoor learning in Falkirk Council schools and Easter Carmuirs teachers were able to confidently rise to the challenge. Local greenspaces were ideal, as classes didn’t need to travel by bus, which reduced the risks associated with the virus. For pupils, returning to a familiar place was important and reassuring in such uncertain times, and wellbeing became a main focus. Since their last class visits, before lockdown, the sites had changed and it was now autumn, bringing comfort that life goes on and new things to discover, learn and enjoy.
Working with a number of schools at the same time helped Under the Trees to share challenges and successes. Over 2 years, they worked directly with nearly 800 pupils and 50 adults, which impacted on siblings, friends and families who, pupils reported, also visited and enjoyed the woods.
“To be able to work with these schools and take them outdoors to engage, discover and explore our natural world and see them flourish has been fantastic. To see our teachers, grow in confidence, to see them getting dirty and climbing trees when at the start they were like deer caught in headlines has been truly rewarding. The work that our schools have put in behind the scenes – creating notice boards, displays, furthering their learning, heading out to greenspaces without us and on a regular basis has been fantastic.”