Scotland is facing key pressures on its biodiversity. Some of these pressures are physical, such as pollution, the overuse of resources, or climate change. Others are more about the way we (under) value nature and the goods and services it provides in decision making. Modern living means we have less connection with it in our everyday lives and there is growing concern that younger generations are missing out on the experience of nature and the benefits it brings to learning and development.
Against this background, the Scottish Government has published Scotland’s Biodiversity a Route Map to 2020, which has developed and helps direct priorities for action. It sets out six Big Steps for Nature, key amongst which is recognising the value of quality greenspace for health and education benefits and identifying a range of projects to engage young people with nature.
Why take learning outdoors?
The policy framework for outdoor learning is well established within Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence and Learning for Sustainability is a core part of the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s (GTCS) Professional Standards. Outdoor Learning is one of the three core strands of Learning for Sustainability, alongside Global Citizenship and Sustainable Development Education, identified in the GTCS Vision 2030+ report (published March 2016), tying in with the UN Global Goals.
More generally, the Government’s National Improvement Framework , with its focus on attainments and equality, is cited as one of the most significant policy developments in Scottish education over the last 10 years. Outdoor learning can significantly contribute to delivering this agenda, but a key challenge remains to pull together the evidence base to demonstrate comprehensively that this is the case in everyday practice.
Improving attainment – how can outdoor learning help
The outdoors, particularly natural spaces, can stimulate and support learning in a way that the indoors simply cannot. Outdoor space allows children the freedom to move and express themselves, and learn by doing. Nature, across all of its aspects, weather and seasons, is dynamic, surprising, and multisensory. Include adventure and fun, and all these elements can motivate the learner and support experiences that provide depth, breadth, challenge and progression.
Many children and young people, who have disengaged from learning indoors, thrive in the outdoor context. Typically, high quality outdoor experiences are child-led and take an interdisciplinary approach. Often, teachers will experience a shift in attitude, seeing sometimes challenging learners in a new and positive light. Increasingly, parents want to know if their children have access to quality outdoor play and learning at nursery and school.
The importance of greenspace for health and wellbeing is recognised by the biophilia hypothesis (our innate positive response to the natural world). But how do we know outdoor learning really delivers education benefits? Anecdotal evidence, from teachers who have embraced outdoor learning approaches, is backed up by an increasing volume of empirical research. For example, recent collated evidence finds links between natural environments and learning.
Nearly a decade ago, Scottish Natural Heritage’s research report Young people’s interaction with natural heritage through outdoor learning Scottish Natural Heritage (2007), identified that “the effect of learning and play within green or natural places of all kinds…was particularly strong in generating greater engagement and challenge and enjoyment”. More recently, research published by Natural England in 2016 found ‘school students engaged in learning in natural environments have been found to have higher achievement (in comparison to their peers or projected attainment) in reading, mathematics, science and social studies, exhibiting enhanced progress in Physical Education and drama, and a greater motivation for studying science’. Whilst the RSPB identified higher English attainment amongst youngsters who were more connected to nature.
Learning through doing
Involving young people in the Route Map is an increasingly important part of SNH’s approach. In 2015/16, we funded 84 projects that engaged nearly 100,000 young people in outdoor recreation, learning, volunteering and citizen science activity. Many of these participants were from disadvantaged backgrounds or had other protected characteristics. Some of the third sector partners in this work include Grounds for Learning, John Muir Trust, National Trust; Outward Bound Trust; RSPB and The Conservation Volunteers (TCV).
One of the key projects identified in the Route Map is all about taking learning outdoors. Led by SNH, Learning in Local Greenspace aims to support 100 schools across Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas to have access to quality greenspace for outdoor learning by 2020. This project tackles the multiple challenges of addressing the attainment gap and community health and wellbeing, as well as engaging young people in the curriculum through outdoor learning.
Our Teaching in Nature programme, a career long professional learning programme for teachers developed by SNH with partners across Scotland, aims to support teachers to support learning outdoors in local greenspace and special places for nature.
The availability of dedicated staff, including Environment and Forestry (ENFOR) Outdoor Learning Project Officers, provided through Scottish Natural Heritage, supports a smarter, more joined-up way of working across Scotland’s environment, heritage forestry and national park bodies. Our online portal, the Outdoor Learning Directory, facilitates this collaboration and cross-boundary, cross-sector working by making it easier for teachers and others to find outdoor learning training, events, learning resources and grants provided by this sector.
Working in partnership with Young Scot, we have also established a national youth advisory panel to help us engage young people in each of the Big Steps for Nature set out in the Route Map. The Panel – named ReRoute – is made up of 16 volunteers aged 13-24 from across Scotland, are investigating and recommending to SNH and Scottish Government how to engage young people across Scotland in Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy and Route Map to 2020. As part of this the panel have conducted a survey of young people, gathering opinions, and information about their understanding and relationship with nature. The results are encouraging and offer a positive view of the future which we hope will be explored further as part of the Year of Young People in 2018.
One youngster in Moray told us: “I think it’s important that we look after nature and the environment as it is beautiful and beneficial”. The development of outdoor learning in Scotland has a very important part in realising this vision.
This post was originally written for Children in Scotland Magazine, by Penny Martin, our Outdoor Learning Project Officer. Children in Scotland is a registered charity working to make Scotland a world leader in securing the wellbeing of every child and improving the quality of every childhood. You can find out more about Children in Scotland here , including how to become a member, and you can subscribe to their bimonthly magazine here.
All images © Lorne Gill/SNH