The importance of getting some fresh air

Posted on: 22 Jan 2018
Posted by: Rachel Fleming

Rachel Fleming, head of early years foundation stage at Headington Prep School, outlines why outdoor learning is so important in improving pupils' team working skills, increasing self-confidence and encouraging an understanding of the environment.

One of the things many people involved in the education of young people agree on is the importance of getting some fresh air. Whether that be an enthusiastic hockey match, a run around the playground at lunchtime or simply a brisk walk to and from school at the beginning and end of the day, the benefits to young people’s health is obvious.

What is becoming more and more recognised is that the outdoors can itself be a wonderful place to learn. New research has just been published which indicates that children actually concentrate better once they are back in the classroom after a period of outdoor learning. Far from over-exciting the pupils and wasting valuable teaching time settling them back into the classroom, the study by the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois found that, after an outdoor learning session, children were more engaged and teachers spent significantly less time redirecting their charges back to their work.

This comes as no surprise to us at Headington Prep School, where outdoor learning is a significant part of our approach, particularly in the younger years. As members of Forest School Education since 2014, our girls visit the same forest environment throughout the year, watching the changes that take place. While we definitely see an increase in focus and engagement when the girls return to class, what happens during our outdoor sessions is also incredibly beneficial.

Seeing the changing environment allows the girls to develop accurate observational skills. Exploring this safe but ‘wild’ classroom, they use natural materials as props in their play. I can’t count the number of different things a stick has become during one of our Forest School sessions – the girls’ imagination and resourcefulness is without limits. We see levels of communication increase as the children develop role play scenarios. Problem-solving skills improve in outdoor environments and independence levels develop at a rate we don’t tend to see inside the classroom – the girls don’t feel the need to ask permission to try out their ideas and they learn to recognise and assess risks for themselves.

We have also found that some children who struggle to manage their behaviour within a classroom excel in the outdoors, benefiting from the open space and taking advantage of the opportunity to work at their own pace. The girls deepen their knowledge and understanding as they learn - perhaps without even realising that they are learning at all.

We see so many benefits, from increased self-confidence, self-esteem and self-motivation to improved team working skills. They take pride in the natural environment and care about it, picking up litter, making bird feeders and building shelters for minibeasts.

If you are boosting a child’s self-esteem, allowing them to develop their independence and direct their own learning, it stands to reason that that child will be better equipped to deal with their next lesson and will be a better learner for the experience. I love every minute I spend with the girls outdoors, it’s truly inspirational seeing them learning in a different way and experiencing things for the first time. And on their return to the classroom, the children are calm and focused in their learning. The girls continue to help and support each other, rather than being simply reliant on the adults, just as they did outside.

Not all schools will have the resources to become a Forest School but hopefully, with the support of this research, more teachers will feel encouraged to take their children outside and take advantage of all the proven benefits of outdoor learning – both during and after the session.

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About Rachel Fleming

Rachel Fleming is headmistress at Headington Prep School in Oxford.