Outdoor Learning without using up your budget

[First published by Headteacher Update magazine May 2014]

Outdoor Learning without using up your budget


An analysis of the last thousand primary schools to have been inspected by Ofsted, shows two very important trends; first that the area most commonly identified for improvement (in over half of all schools inspected) is Teaching. Second, that the most common reason that a school is not yet good or outstanding centres upon children’s engagement levels.


Developing strategies for improving teaching and learning, and increasing children’s engagement, is not easy and many schools have been seeking inspiration for new ideas and fresh approaches. One of the common themes across the country at the moment is about developing Outdoor Learning; ranging from forest schools to farms, and from sensory to sandpit. Here, we share some practical ideas for developing Outdoor Learning on a budget.


Gill Ellis, from St Andrew’s CE VA Primary School in Radcliffe, Bury[1] explains…

“Our Outdoor Learning development was a vital part of our planned strategy for raising attainment outcomes. In the summer of 2012 we thus began to develop a careful plan which targeted specific children in our school. Our focus was very much on our continuous provision across the curriculum, and how best we could develop quality enabling environments both indoors and outdoors. We were also keen to involve a range of staff in the journey; beyond teaching staff and leadership teams.


Our first step was to redefine our school outside space; establishing security and boundaries so that we were portraying a clear, and improved place where expectations for learning could be clearly rooted”.


HIGHLIGHT: How does the outside space that children work within infer an expectation of pro-active learning?


“Once we had clear learning spaces identified and established, we undertook a thorough audit of what resources we already had available to us. We utilised guidance and information from a range of people familiar with outdoor learning and landscapes, and immersed ourselves in thinking about key questions and ideas raised from within these”.


“We then reflected carefully on what other people had done and drew these ideas together to plan the space; prioritising what we could achieve in the short and longer term. It was important to us to establish some initial successes so that the children, staff and families could see how our outside space would develop over time.




Some of these initial actions were simple things such as our school caretaker erecting guttering and an outdoor tap. These simple actions opened up a vast range of opportunities that we could then use across the curriculum. We also held a Ground Force Day where we built a sand based learning area and a Mud Kitchen”.




“We wanted to create a sense of sensory nature and so we sought help locally to re-bark the floor of our outside area and to add tree stumps for seating and interest areas”.




“Planning how we would maintain and sustain our outdoor learning space was important in our planning. We obtained a large shed and abundance of storage boxes for the areas so that we could use these throughout continuous provision. None of our provision has been budget breaking. For example:


  • Guttering (£30.00)
  • Outdoor tap (£20.00)
  • Teepee made with bamboo canes (£15.00)
  • Mud kitchen(£20.00)
  • Sink tyres (free)


“We have repurposed existing resources such as crates, an old classroom table, a PE trolley and chalkboards, and we also find objects for £1 each week that facilitate learning in each of the areas such as jugs and baking trays, to complement more complex resources that are more expensive to source, such as magnifying glasses”.


HIGHLIGHT: Outdoor Learning does not depend on expensive landscaping projects or costly equipment.


For example, as Cath Lavelle, Assistant Head, Barlow Hall Primary School[2] explains: “We have recently built a Mud Kitchen in our outdoor area and just purchased waterproof clothing and wellies for the children to keep clean (ish!) and dry. The children mix their own mud from clean topsoil and water and we enhance it with natural materials that the children bring in or that we find around the school such as pine cones, leaves, woodchip, petals etc. The parents helped us by donating wooden and metal bowl, pans and utensils and one of the teachers dads built the tables and frames. The children use it every day and it is always a busy but calm place to be. The children have become independent at fetching their own wellies and getting themselves dressed in waterproofs. It is a great place to promote sharing and collaboration and for imaginative play and speaking and listening”.






Across the country many schools are currently working on or thinking about developing their outdoor learning provision. One of the questions that often arises in conversation is from our member schools who are within city centres or who have limited outside spaces. We have seen some very creative solutions to these challenges – ranging from sophisticated roof classrooms in new build schools, to window box vegetable patches in multi floor schools. It’s entirely possible for all children to benefit from the curriculum opportunities that ‘outdoor learning’ offers without depending on access to outdoor space.


Other approaches that our schools talk about is bringing nature inside the building; for example recreating everyday forest floor objects such as twigs, leaves and soil, inside the role play area. Children put wellies and overalls on inside the classroom just the same as they would do if going outdoors; and this is particularly good for children from low income families who might not otherwise have their own wellies – a couple of pairs of differently sized wellies ensure that all children have equal access (hunt in your lost-property box; there are bound to be a few). This kind of sensory experience awakens children to a vocabulary and sense of discovery that lends itself to targeted questioning and knowledge development encompassing science, geography, art, music and maths, as well as the more obvious literary connections.


Another benefit that children in more rurally located schools have is to be able to lie under trees en masse to read, write or draw. Those with schools fortunate enough to have such landscapes will know what a profound impact this can make to children’s imaginations and creativity; particularly in their writing. A number of schools have used inside spaces to recreate this – oversize indoor plants adjacent to library skylights, or trellis partitions covered in climbers for example, create a sense of scale, mottled light amidst the leaves and particularly when near to a window breeze can strike the imagination within any classroom.


It’s important to give children the opportunity to connect with nature regularly; not just on day trips or for those lucky enough to benefit from family who go on walks or play outdoors. Bringing natural fabrics; bark, wood, willow and moss into outside learning areas provides a sense of inclusion for those children who do not regularly get the opportunity to open their senses to the sight, smell and texture of nature.



As Jason Bilinciwitz, Deputy Headteacher at Sacred Heart RC Primary School in Bolton[3], summarises, “The key to outstanding outdoor learning is creating memorable learning experiences that will stay with children for a lifetime. We have a huge focus upon improving children’s social and emotional development. Many children with difficulties working in large groups or with their speaking and listening skills are highlighted at pupil progress meetings and enrolled into our weekly OLE (outdoor learning environment) groups. These children then work with a guided TA to develop their interpersonal skills through small group based learning activities. They might talk through and re-enact bible stories, design and make green man masks or discuss a story by the fire-pit whilst sipping hot chocolate.

Children are able to learn in a safe and exciting space whilst being in a small group allowing for more focused teaching. It is our vision to share with the children what the outdoors can bring to education and we believe that these real life experiences contribute to the education of the whole child”.

Here are a few top-tips if you’re thinking about Outdoor Learning as a priority in your school:

  • Identify a leader for Outdoor Learning development and empower them with the budget and team to deliver on their vision.
  • Think carefully about what your vision needs rather than what is easy to source.
  • Ask your parents and community what skills, expertise, materials and ideas they can offer – lots of schools carry out surveys to find out how parents can contribute in kind – and parents often prefer this to being asked to sponsor events or find cash for the summer fair.
  • Avoid investing time and money in objects that look great just because they can be seen by parents and passers-by. Challenge yourself to justify how each item will directly support children’s learning before you commit to the spend.
  • Look around your local area with a fresh pair of eyes – what can be reused or recycled? What natural resources can be found nearby? Or if you are in the middle of a city – is there a building site throwing away bricks, tiles or planks that can be reused for example?
  • Outdoor Learning doesn’t need to be a timetabled slot for a whole class activity; think about outdoor learning experiences as targeted interventions, and the activities as curriculum differentiation.
  • Ensure that your Outdoor Learning provision is making a difference – identify targeted groups of children, and plan how particular spaces or activities will be used to meet their specific needs in a specific timeframe. Use the analysis of their progress to best determine next steps in planning future provision.


[1] http://www.standrewsradcliffe.co.uk

[2] http://bit.ly/1kAHZp8

[3] http://www.sacred-heart.bolton.sch.uk


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