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Avril Rowley: Towards A ‘Natural Curriculum’


How the use of Outdoor Learning and Forest School approaches is impacting Initial Teacher Education students at Liverpool John Moores University and local schools

It has become widely accepted that the natural environment has a positive effect on the physical and mental wellbeing of individuals.  As a result, many primary schools have started to develop outdoor learning spaces into their curriculum and grounds through the development of adventure playgrounds, gardening areas/allotments or through delivery of Forest Schools which is becoming widely adopted across the UK.  Children take part in outdoor activities such as den building, making fires, creating natural artworks and climbing trees in a natural outdoor setting. These activities are separate from schools’ curriculum delivery and allow children to work together in groups, which studies have shown contribute to the development of their communication, interpersonal skills and social development.

Although the benefits of a Forest School education are now widely recognised in this country, curriculum pressures mean that schools have been reluctant to dedicate time solely to Forest School in case learning time is lost in the classroom.  To combat this, many schools find that a good way to compromise is to use a range of Outdoor Learning strategies to teach curriculum subjects such as maths, English and science outside the classroom to ensure that all content is covered to meet learning targets. 

Much of the content of the National Curriculum lends itself well to being taught as a Natural Curriculum.   Teachers have long taken pupils out into the school grounds to study mini-beasts and plant life but subjects in the National Curriculum have potential for so much than this.   Maths Trails, natural artworks, music using natural ‘instruments’ and geography fieldwork are among the countless learning opportunities available to children outside the classroom.  With schools entering into very uncertain times when they reopen their doors to pupils, it would seem that the obvious place to teach children safely would be out in the fresh air.

With the move towards more Outdoor Learning in schools, it is timely that all primary trainee teachers (and some secondary) and Early Childhood and Education Studies students at Liverpool John Moores University (LMJU) gain experience and qualifications in Forest School approaches to teaching and learning.  In addition, a wide range of other Outdoor Learning strategies are also embedded into subject specialist training in the National Curriculum.  This prepares LJMU trainee teachers to be proficient in teaching a wide range of subjects outdoors and allows them to gain qualifications which will equip them for teaching in the changing educational context they face on school placements and their first jobs.

To ensure that LJMU trainee teachers are able to become confident in their use of Outdoor Learning strategies, an Outdoor Learning area, The Natural Curriculum Hub, was established in the summer of 2016.  This is a designated Outdoor Learning/Forest School area on the School of Education’s campus which is unusual for teacher training settings and gives LJMU a unique selling point for potential students to all of our education programmes. Trainee teachers and education students work in this area to develop their own skills and work with children from local schools to ensure that they are also able to benefit from this natural learning resource.

With the planned move for the School of Education into Liverpool city centre in 2021, a new Outdoor Learning area has been planted in the LJMU Art and Design campus grounds.  This will be used to continue this unique work with students plus reach new groups of pupils in inner city schools who have little or no access to green spaces in their homes or school grounds.  In addition to this, the Hub has developed training packages for schools keen to develop Outdoor Learning opportunities across their school curriculum and to equip their staff with the skills to do this. 

With the lingering uncertainty around the full impact of the pandemic, our role as educators is to support the next generation of teachers to navigate the ‘new normal’ of life in the classroom. By equipping our trainees with skills to teach pupils outdoors, we hope to enable healthier, more effective and more engaged learning.

Image credit: Avril Rowley

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