Outdoor Learning

Chris Hupp, Project Leader, ACS Cobham International School

What support and resources do teachers need to make the best use of outdoor learning opportunities?



Research evidence3 suggests that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. Other research suggests that childhood outdoor learning experiences shape the awe, wonder and respect for the natural environment that forms the foundation of our understanding and practice of responsible environmental behavior as adults. 4Some forms of outdoor learning have also been shown to have a low to moderate, yet significant, effect on student learning and development.5

Outdoor learning is an approach to teaching and learning that uses the natural environment as the setting and often the focus of learning. It empowers children and
young people to take responsibility for their own learning and development, encouraging child-led learning and learning through play. Outdoor learning promotes holistic, individualised learning and development that is interdisciplinary in nature. The natural environment provides stimulus for all the senses, all areas of development and accommodates a variety of student learning differences. Outdoor learning also encourages emotional growth, self-esteem, confidence, and independence.

ACS Cobham has invested significant resources in the development of quality outdoor learning spaces, including the larch wood, pond and hide, Tom Tent, Jardine de Soleil, etc. and has identified campus-based landscape features that provide a range of learning opportunities. With perceived limited utilisation of the outdoors for teaching and learning, the purpose of this project was to provide teachers with additional resources aimed at making it easier to plan and lead safe, curriculum-linked outdoor learning activities, and increase the use of outdoor learning by Lower School teachers. The resources are linked to other key Lower School initiatives including mapping the curriculum using the Common Core English Language Arts standards, as well as the support of social- emotional development using the Responsive Classroom.



The project was approached through the question, ‘How can additional resources to support the use of Outdoor Learning to enhance English and Language Arts teaching and learning, and the development of socio- emotional skills associated with the Responsive Classroom, benefit Lower School teachers and students?’

During the first phase of this project in 2013/14 the project had sought to remove any barriers that prevented the use of the outdoor areas available at ACS Cobham, this included simplifying the effort required to complete the health and safety risk assessments (developing templates for risk assessment). A map of the campus was created, which defines outdoor learning areas (based on distinctive ecological and built features) and suggests appropriate activity types for each area. Conversations are ongoing at ACS Cobham to put up signage showing the trails and other outdoor learning areas of interest.

The outdoor learning maps and risk assessment resources were made available to ACS Cobham Lower school teachers at the start of the 2014- 2015 school year. In autumn 2014, a survey was administered to Lower School teachers to understand current outdoor learning practice, interest in expanding the use of outdoor learning, and perceived barriers to outdoor learning.

To build on this work and the results of a survey, the project leader has focused on developing a project website that provides a comprehensive response to all things outdoor learning related, including curriculum- specific lesson plans and lesson planning ideas for English Language Arts.


What did we learn?

The survey undertaken by Cobham Lower School faculty found that the majority of the respondents see outdoor learning as being highly effective in achieving the following learning outcomes:

  • Making learning more integrated or multi-disciplinary
  • Providing for differentiated and/or enriched learning opportunities
  • Accommodating students individual learning differences
  • Motivating and enthusing students
  • Developing students’ self-confidence
  • Developing teamwork and collaboration
  • Improving subject learning (Science, Social Studies, English Language Arts, etc.)

When asked about their personal perceptions of and beliefs about academic learning in outdoor environments more than 75% of the respondents agreed with the following statements:

  • Learning academic content outdoors should form an important part of our students’ learning experiences.
  • Outdoor learning enhances teaching and learning in ways that are not possible inside the classroom.
  • Our curriculum should include more opportunities for and connections to learning outside the classroom.
  • Parents support or encourage outdoor learning as part of their child’s experience at school.

However, when asked to consider their recent teaching experiences and describe their experience and understanding of outdoor learning, although almost 90% agreed with the statement ‘I understand the philosophy of and rationale behind incorporating outdoor learning with academic training’, and almost 73% agreed with ‘I am familiar with the research evidence that demonstrates ways outdoor learning experiences can support student learning outcomes’, in many cases less than a third of participants agreed with the following statements:

  • I am familiar with differentiating instruction outdoors to meet the needs of diverse learners.
  • I am familiar with teaching resources (books, websites, training opportunities, etc.) that can help me to plan academic learning outside.
  • I have the training needed to be effective in teaching outdoors.
  • I am able to link the academic curriculum I teach to learning that happens outdoors.
  • I am confident planning and leading academic lessons outdoors.
  • I am familiar with techniques and strategies for effectively managing children in an outdoor learning environment.
  • I know how to gather evience of students’ outdoor academic learning experiences.
  • I am familiar with ways I can use outdoor learning to provide more integrated, multi-disciplinary experiences for my students.
  • I am familiar with ways I can incorporate ICT skills and mobile devices with outdoor learning.

The question relating to how many times have you or are you planning to use twelve identified outdoor areas for teaching and learning on the ACS Cobham campus resulted in a ‘never’ response from nearly 50% of participants against each of the identified areas.

The final question asked what would engage you more with outdoor learning in the near future and the following statements ranked the highest:

  • If more training or professional development opportunities for effective outdoor learning were offered, I would be interested in participating.
  • If there were ready-to-use outdoor learning activities linked to our academic or social-emotional curriculum, I would plan and deliver more lessons outdoors.
  • If risk assessments for outdoor learning were less time consuming, I would plan and deliver more lessons outdoors.
  • If there were directional graphics, signs, and way markers in outdoor areas, I would plan and deliver more lessons outdoors.
  • If I had more information (descriptions, flora and fauna, learning opportunities, etc.) about the various outdoor spaces, I would plan and deliver more lessons outdoors.
  • If there were detailed maps of the campus (trails, access to outdoor spaces, etc) I would plan and deliver more lessons outdoors.

The initial response to engage more teachers in using the outdoor spaces for teaching and learning is to provide them with the support and resources they need, e.g. maps, more information about the various spaces, ideas for lessons and lesson plans, risk assessment guides, etc., and this is the aim of the Outdoor Learning website that has been developed. Success and use of the website will be measured overtime, with a plan to conduct the survey annually to assess how perception and use is changing as a result of this new resource being made available.


Next steps

As a result of this project the project leader has formed the Outdoor Resources Advisory Committee (ORAC) to advise the school leadership team on outdoor learning development plans, and has also developed the Outdoor Learning website. Both these initiatives are now part of the ACS Cobham framework and will continue to operate as part of ‘business as usual’.

The project leader is expanding his thinking in Outdoor Learning and together with his Grade 3 colleagues will begin a new research project asking ‘How can we optimize student and teacher engagement through the delivery of an outdoor based collaboratively developed unit of instruction?’