Go Explore! A Head of Junior School’s View

‘Mud pies, rose-scented perfume and dens.’ Those were the days!

As I reflect on a childhood in the backstreets of Bolton, Lancashire, these are some of my fondest recollections. Yet was it a misspent youth? A waste of time, which could have been better used, with book in hand, reading, studying, learning? I don’t think so.

I wasn’t alone in those streets. The alleys and playing fields were full of children grouped together by age, interests or family friendships. Was this all just frivolous fun without substance or did it play a part in shaping who and what we are now? Children today do not necessarily have the same opportunities as we once did. They tend to be more sheltered and constantly supervised, which might not be so much of a good thing.

The value of outdoor learning has long been debated. While the concept of ‘outdoor learning’ is broad and complex, with endless permutations of foci, outcomes, and location (see Rickinson et al., 2004: 15; Scott & Gough, 2003: 54), an emerging body of evidence-based research in environmental education points to its benefits, Janet E. Dyment University of Tasmania, Faculty of Education, Launceston, Tasmania 7250, Australia). The introduction of the UK EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage), a term first launched in 2006 and implemented two years later, demanded that outdoor learning be an integral part of every school setting. Free-flow classrooms, where children could wander between indoor activities and outdoor pursuits required schools to re-assess their buildings, resources and teaching strategies.

So, in the academically rigorous environment of Dulwich College, what part could and should outdoor learning play?

It seems to be the case that less and less outdoor learning happens, especially as students get older. Some of the reasons may include: 

•  Concerns about health and safety
•  Teachers’ lack of confidence in teaching in the outdoor environment
•  The need for form-filling and parental consent
•  Lack of time and resources
•  Pressure on curriculum time

Whilst these concerns may have some validity, most teachers (especially the early years specialists amongst us), who have been on well-planned field trips, will point out the considerable benefits of such experiences to students.

However, outdoor learning is not restricted to field trips: more regular and equally beneficial learning opportunities can be offered on campus. Outdoor learning, in fact, is simply learning out-of-doors. A planned story time under a tree, a habitats study around the school pond or indeed English lessons in an outdoor environment allow students to engage in lessons with a different, equally conducive and certainly more memorable setting. Such experiences will live in children’s memories far longer.

To support this approach, schools should be planning outdoor spaces that can be used to enhance the curriculum. A school pond, such as the one we have at DCS, which allows students of various age groups to study habitats, mini beasts and environments, gives an instant boost to the science curriculum. A forested area or an area devoted to twigs, branches and tarpaulin mats etc. gives something to both art and design technology, whilst also giving the IA students a place to begin some of their practices.

The forest schools projects, by now well-documented, have been a way to engage students in meaningful outdoor activities, giving them life skills and opportunities for problem solving, collaboration and team work. ( Even if our setting does not provide enough space to undertake the full forest schools programme, undertaking some of the core principles with limited space and time is almost always possible.  Those core values, summarised in three words, are: inspire, aspire, transform.

Besides the curriculum benefits of outdoor learning, there is also significant research to show the emotional benefits of being outdoors:

“In outdoor learning, pupils develop more positive relationships with each other, with their teachers and with the wider community. It can develop community pride and a greater sense of place, belonging and community” (Taking Learning Outdoors. Learning Teaching Scotland, 2007).

In an academic institution such as Dulwich College, these emotional benefits are perhaps on a par with those that the curriculum provides. We often speak about creating well-rounded individuals, and with outdoor learning opportunities being an integral part of school life; we can significantly contribute to achieving this aim. China Week is an excellent way to begin some of the necessary physical, emotional and social learning and we can reinforce that by creating other such opportunities on campus.

The key word throughout is the word learning. Children will always be outside playing, running around, letting off steam - but little learning will actually take place.  For outdoor learning to have a real impact, it needs to be planned and delivered as part of the core curriculum, not simply as an optional extra because the weather is nice. Should pond dipping be cancelled because it is raining or should we provide wellington boots and raincoats to allow students to study, learn and play, whatever the weather?

So what is holding us back? One teacher I spoke to claimed justifiably that schools are under a great deal of pressure to teach the curriculum and meet targets. Creating opportunities such as these would require justification and weighing up  what lessons or objectives might be missed. The purpose of this article is not to give definitive answers as each school and cohort is different. Rather, it is to initiate and encourage dialogue between interested parties. Perhaps a widening of educational focus beyond assessment and passing exams may help us to achieve even better results?


Phil Stewart
Head of Junior School
Dulwich College Shanghai