There is no set way to begin learning in local greenspace. Sometimes the best way is to just give it a go and let the place and your pupils be your inspiration. We have a few suggestions for your first few visits.
There are, of course, some important things to think about and prepare in advance, including risk-benefit assessment and setting expectations of your pupils and adult helpers.
Engaging with parents and the local community can add breadth and depth to learning and there are many other initiatives you could link with.
School policies and procedures for learning in local greenspace
School policies and procedures can help you to make quick, correct decisions should issues arise. Up to date and relevant policies will safeguard your pupils, accompanying adults and yourself.
Before visiting your greenspace with pupils for the first time, you must identify potential risks and eliminate or reduce them to an acceptable level. Your local authority may have a preferred approach to risk assessment. Try your SAPOE representative if you don’t know what this is. It may be beneficial to use a risk-benefit approach. You should involve pupils in assessing and managing risk before and during visits too.
Consider, particularly, what you will do:
- in adverse weather: when is it too bad to go/so bad you must leave early? This will differ according to your site and your pupils;
- if you encounter anti-social behaviour: can you move to another area; when must you leave all together?;
- if a pupil needs to return to school: will the whole group return or will one adult go back (who; are enough adults left)?;
- if a pupil is ‘lost’ (see also establishing boundaries and routines): different responses are required depending on the pupil and the length of time they have been missing;
- about pupil/adult ratios: this may differ according to your pupils and the activities you will be doing (e.g. using tools or fire).
You may also want to:
- gain parental consent at the start of each year for routine and expected out of school visits within walking distance;
- develop a site checklist to be used as you arrive at the site for each visit;
- create a code of practice for adult helpers supporting learning in local greenspace, ensuring they know and understand policies and procedures and rules and routines.
Getting to and from your local greenspace
Your trip to and from your greenspace should not be seen as wasted time, rather this can be an integral part of the experience and valuable learning time. This can be a transition between indoor and outdoor lessons; a time to get in the right frame of mind; a time to chat and strengthen relationships with classmates and adults; an opportunity to exercise and enjoy the surroundings; a chance to observe seasonal changes and other goings on in their community.
Give the pupils some independence and responsibility. Designate roles amongst the group and rotate for each visit, e.g. leader; ‘ender’; resource carrier; route planner (if appropriate). Younger pupils may benefit from a song, story or rhyme to help keep up the pace (e.g. When the saints [replace with your school name] go marching) and/or highlight hazards (e.g. an adaptation of We’re going on a bear hunt).
Potential activities include:
- asking questions about the things you encounter to research later;
- observing and recording changes in a specific tree you always pass, for example, perhaps logging findings over time and maybe even contributing to a national database like Nature’s Calendar;
- mapping exercises and compass work; can the pupils accurately direct others to their greenspace?;
- count or collect certain items for use on site or in class;
- if safe to do so, try seeing things from a different perspective, e.g. focus on one particular sense, look up or look down;
- create a journey stick;
- link with the Daily Mile or add some fun with ‘Don’t step on the cracks!’
Don't forget to include your journey to and from your greenspace in your risk-benefit assessment.
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Establishing boundaries and routines
Regardless of the age or stage of your pupils, routines that are learned and carried out on a regular basis will help them feel secure and relaxed in your space, and more able to learn.
- Help the pupils decide which area they will learn in today and where physical boundaries should lie. Younger learners, or those less experienced outdoors, could attach coloured ribbon to trees or use other items to mark boundaries. Don’t forget to remove these afterwards.
- Involve the learners in identifying hazards, assessing risk and discussing mitigations. Consider hazards at different heights; little ones could think ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’. Mark dog poo and other hazards you can’t safely remove, e.g. with a flag or stick, to highlight them for pupils to avoid.
- Establish fun techniques for getting your learners’ attention, such as using a bird whistle (you can buy these) or co-creating and sing a song that pupils gradually join in with until all are engaged.
- Similarly, establish fun routines for gathering together, e.g. playing sticky feet/hands/elbows (pupils gather in a circle with the relevant body part touching).
- Establish routines for toileting outdoors. Investigate what local facilities are available, can you come to an agreement with a local café or business?
- Make sure you leave no trace of having been there; get the pupils to check for any litter or resources left behind.
- Agree on and frequently practice procedures to avert potential issues, such as:
- ‘lost’ pupil drill (should they find themselves separated from the group), e.g. sit down and shout an agreed word or play ‘1,2,3 where are you?’ (pupil answers ‘1,2,3 here I am!’ to each call until found);
- bee/wasp drill, e.g. stand still, cover mouth and nose and buzz;
- unknown dog drill, e.g. fold arms and turn away, perhaps calling something to warn others;
- known or unknown adult approaching. Children should know never to leave the group without your agreement.
- You will also need routines to ensure effective hand washing and proper application of sun cream/insect repellent; can your group come up with a rhyme, song or rap to facilitate this?
- Can your learners come up with a greenspace code that they all sign up to? As well as behavioural expectations, consider other users and your rights and responsibilities in the outdoors.
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Example hand washing song (Facebook link)
Activities for your first few visits
There are extensive resources available online, packed full of ideas for learning outdoors across the curriculum, but it can be easy to become overwhelmed with the options. As well as establishing and reinforcing boundaries and routines, activities for the first few visits should help pupils get to know their space and begin feel at home there. Your place is your source of inspiration and resources; avoid bringing in lots of things. Learners could:
- choose a tree or area that ‘draws’ them, explore it (see sensory activities, below), give it a descriptive name, tell others about it. Revisit it on subsequent trips; how is ‘your’ space, what has changed?;
- carry out some exploratory or sensory activities, like blindfold games (e.g. Meet a Tree); sound bingo or colour ‘catching’ (you will be amazed at the range of colours and shades). Give each pupil a cardboard tube or small mirror to help them see things from a different angle (e.g. up!); use magnifiers, play ‘I spy’. Even older pupils enjoy and benefit from activities like these;
- generate questions about the space, which you might work together to answer over time;
- conduct research into current users and uses. How might this impact on your plans to access it for learning; what are the opportunities as well as any threats?;
- consider the risks and benefits of engaging with their greenspace and the various activities they may do there;
- explore what is available in their space, e.g. via a greenspace audit; leading to discussion on what they might like to learn about during visits or how they might (in time) enhance it;
- discover more about the biodiversity of your greenspace, e.g. via a Citizen Science activity. This could feed in to ideas for enhancing your greenspace for the benefit of biodiversity which, ultimately, will enhance learning (the more diverse your space, the more diverse your learning opportunities). If you lack confidence with identifying what you find, apps like Seek by iNaturalist can help;
- map their space: make a natural map, use a compass, create orienteering routes or set up a Geocache;
- turn issues and setbacks into learning opportunities, e.g. pupils could write letters and create posters regarding dog waste;
- embrace the different learning opportunities brought about by changes in the weather; for example make a rain gauge, kite or wind sock.
Try out different approaches to reviewing and evaluating; there are lots of interesting and playful ways to do this. You may want to gather baseline information during your first few visits, e.g. on pupil attainment in a certain curricular area.
Build in time just to ‘be’ and to play, even for older pupils. Investigate and reflect on what happens if you allow yourself to be less rigid in your planning; how does this impact on the pupils and their learning?
Let yourself be guided by the pupils’ interests and involve them in planning future visits. Chances are, by the end of your first few visits you will have found a whole host of learning opportunities you can’t wait to investigate.
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Keeping parents involved and informed
Involving parents from an early stage and keeping them informed and involved throughout is a worthwhile investment. Likewise, working with others in your community can bring many benefits and make it easier to normalise learning in local greenspace in your school and community.
- enlist parents' help to find a greenspace;
- find out whether they have any expertise, interests or contacts they can share;
- tell them why you are learning in local greenspace;
- issue a parental consent form at the start of each year for routine and expected out of school visits within walking distance;
- ask for parent helpers. Parents live in the local community and can often bring great breadth and depth to learning. Don’t be afraid to learn together with pupils and parents; you should not feel you need to be an expert in everything or put on a performance each time you visit your space;
- provide support, perhaps develop guidance for parent helpers;
- share challenges and successes via school blogs, newsletters and displays in school. Invite parents to visit your space and have the pupils share their learning and experiences;
- acknowledge concerns as soon as possible and address them promptly, where required;
- keep a store of spare clothing and footwear for pupils who don’t have/ bring suitable clothing, reducing the likelihood of complaints about dirty uniforms or ‘catching colds’. Perhaps ask families to donate items they have grown out of.
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Engaging your community
Engage with your local community early in your journey towards learning in local greenspace. Can they help you find a site, establish who owns it or do an initial clean up?
Involve pupils as much as possible in working with the community, e.g.:
- they could create and carry out a survey of other users; what do they enjoy about the space, what do they do there? Tap into users’ interests and expertise; is there potential for joint projects?;
- keep neighbours informed of what you are doing and why, through newsletters, posters and leaflets – all created by the pupils;
- designing posters, leaflets, letters and newspaper articles can also be an effective way to address issues such as dog waste; litter and antisocial behaviour;
- hold ‘days’ to share the workload and highlight the positives about what you are doing, e.g. a clean up day; a planting day; an open day.
Partnerships with others may even give you access to funding not normally open to schools.
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Wider educational initiatives and learning in local greenspace
Learning in local greenspace is not an added extra; it can be a powerful context for learning across the curriculum and link with many of the educational initiatives you may already be involved in. Using a real, local context can facilitate interdisciplinary learning and contribute to pupils’ wider achievement, giving them opportunities to gain awards such as the John Muir Award.
Through learning in local greenspace you could:
- address most curricular areas;
- raise attainment (refer to the research in the Why? section of this resource);
- enhance health and wellbeing, e.g. develop character, resilience, confidence and a sense of self;
- realise pupils’ entitlement to Learning for Sustainability, e.g. outdoor learning; community partnerships; critical thinking; local to global; and cooperative, collaborative and active learning;
- develop interests, skills, strengths and aspirations for life beyond school;
- strengthen home-school links by engaging parents;
- enhance your EcoSchools work (community is one of the 7 EcoSchools elements);
- engage new partners and make links with the school community;
- take part in Citizen Science;
- carry out an Enterprise project;
- work towards an award, such as John Muir Award; RSPB Wild Challenge Award; Woodland Trust Green Tree Award; Archaeology Scotland Heritage Heroes Award; or JASS Awards;
- Learn about a variety of jobs. Depending on your space and available partners, pupils could learn from the land owner or manager; a local interest group (e.g. bird watching group; local history group; or recreational users); gamekeepers; or gillies.