Why learn in local greenspace?
Patna Primary School sits in a rural location on the edge of the small town of Patna, East Ayrshire. It serves an area of significant disadvantage. The school is fortunate to have a modern campus with large open play spaces and a garden. As this is a relatively new setting, planting in the school grounds is neither mature nor diverse. Learning in a local greenspace, in a more mature natural environment, offers a wider variety of learning opportunities.
The Scottish Attainment Challenge COACh (Curriculum Outdoors Attainment Challenge) team, part of the East Ayrshire Council Learning Outdoors Support Team (LOST), works across the local authority supporting schools and building teacher capacity to take learning outdoors. COACh worked with Patna Primary over the course of a school year within the school grounds and in greenspaces beyond.
Finding your local greenspace
A short distance from the school is a wooded area, partly privately owned and partly managed by Forestry and Land Scotland. Though many children pass this area on the way to and from school, very few visit it. When the project began, few teachers knew how to access the woodland. This meant that opportunities for learning and play were being missed.
Maps and satellite images were used to gain an overview and to find out how far the greenspace extended. The only way to properly investigate its potential for learning was for adults to take the time to find access points and explore. They made several pre visits following different paths, making risk assessments and finding open spaces large enough for whole class groups to gather. After asking older siblings, a few pupils were able to suggest paths. Classroom assistants, who were more likely to live locally, also provided valuable advice.
COACh teacher, Carolyn McFarlane, reflected
“This was not an area that I knew well and I was excited to explore new spaces. I was comfortable taking the classes beyond the school gate after working with them outdoors within the school grounds.”
Accessing your local greenspace
The initial visits identified a variety of spaces. Staff were then able to select the sites most suited to the different needs and interests of the pupils. It was important to think about how far the different age groups would be able to walk.
Pupils were involved in planning and risk assessments before sessions. They were asked to suggest how they would keep themselves ‘healthy, happy and ready to learn’ while out of the school grounds and in the woods. Risk assessments (both formal and classroom) were reviewed after sessions and amended if necessary.
Adults carried a rucksack containing a small First Aid kit, a phone and emergency spare clothing. Pupils carried bags for any other equipment for learning and their own packed lunches for longer visits. Sets of spare wellies and were kept at school along with spare fleeces, hats and gloves. These were bought with money from the COACh fund and ensured that no one would miss out on learning in local greenspace.
Conditions outdoors were assessed in advance and, as part of the woodland included tall trees with shallow roots, particular attention was paid to wind conditions and damage. There were no visits on days when wind was likely to cause any tree damage and areas where trees had fallen were avoided until cleared.
Using your local greenspace
Pupils would be given simple tasks to complete as they walked to the greenspace. They might be asked to estimate the distance to be travelled or the time it would take. Estimates were then checked against the pupils’ actual measurements. Younger pupils would be asked to look for text in the built environment, explain why it was there and how it was used. At other times, pupils might look for signs of the changing seasons.
Once in the woods, children took part in many different activities including bug hunts, creating habitat heaps, using the natural environment as the stimulus for imaginative or factual writing, or science investigations. Teachers noticed that pupils asked more questions and were more engaged in their learning whilst outdoors.
Class teacher Miss Richmond witnessed many benefits to learning outdoors
“Outdoor Learning ...helps to develop social, physical and communication skills, self-esteem and independence and inspires creativity.”
The most valuable learning was pupil led. One group of children who regularly visited the woods after school said that they shouldn’t have to look after the woods which led to contributions from classmates who saw it as everyone’s responsibility to look after the woodland and the living things in it.
Amongst the most popular activities were fire lighting and den building. It was evident that parts of the woods were already in use for informal gatherings and that trees had been burned and the ground scarred. Pupils used ghillie kettles (part of the kit provided as part of the COACh programme) to learn the safe and efficient way to light a fire. Dens were built without damaging living and growing things. At the end of each session the site was cleared of litter and debris (including that left by other visitors). Throughout the project the principles of Leave No Trace were emphasised and pupils aimed to leave the woods free of litter and damage.
“It’s good fun going outside because of the weather!”
Improving your local greenspace
Litter surveys and litter picks were a regular feature. Habitat heaps and biodegradable bird feeders were made by several classes.
As the area was being accessed by several classes each week, care was taken to avoid using single spaces too often. This was especially important when the ground was wet and soft. Fortunately, the area was large enough that one space could be visited in the morning and another in the afternoon to minimise any impact.
Spreading and embedding learning in local greenspace
The COACh team initially took the lead in organising and defining learning outcomes. As the project progressed responsibility was handed over to class teachers. This has supported and inspired the teachers to keep taking learning outdoors.
“We have continued to implement outdoor learning at Patna and over the years developed our outdoor learning spaces”
Miss McGhee, Class Teacher
“Children are always excited to explore outside and most of all they love it! If we want our children to move mountains, we first have to let them out their seat.”
Miss Richmond, Class Teacher
Three different classes were involved at any one time in greenspace visits. Experience and expertise was therefore shared across teaching staff throughout the school. Care was taken to ensure that pupil learning was progressive so that skills and knowledge acquired in P1 could be built on at later stages. Wider Achievement awards were used to support progression. Pupils who completed an RSPB Wild Challenge in P1 would go on to complete a John Muir Award in P6 or P7.
Homework tasks were set which included learning with family and carers at home. Pupils were encouraged to take their families on woodland adventures and to act as ‘expert guides’ in the greenspace. Children often reported back on visits with families and shared new discoveries and stories from parents who had explored the area as children. Learning in local greenspace engaged the whole school and the wider community.