Outdoor learning and a life caring for the natural world.

Chris Mackie is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and Sport.  His research – the first to be funded through Scottish Natural Heritage’s Magnus Magnusson studentship – asks whether outdoor learning can foster a desire to care for the natural environment. Here he shares some of his experiences from recent fieldwork with two schools, using their school grounds and local greenspaces for outdoor learning.


Field border, ©Chris Mackie

In higher education, you’re often told that as your journey progresses, your field of inquiry goes from ’broad and shallow’ to ’narrow and deep’, like a nice neat funnel, pointing in a single direction. At the start of a PhD, it’s tempting to feel that you’re already at the start of the narrowing, and should just be able to follow your nose to the end of it.

Maybe some folk do have this experience, but my education has never felt like that. Instead, I’ve been lucky enough to spend years following tangents and ideas across a few different disciplines and settings – more like grasping at threads blowing in the wind, rather than drilling down in one place.

Thanks to the support of SNH, through the Magnus Magnusson Studentship, I’ve been able to spend the last two years following some of those threads back to their sources, and now I’m in a position to start pulling them all together and weaving something.

My research is looking at what happens when young children go outside at school, mainly with their teachers. I’m interested in this because lots of research and professional experience suggests that outdoor environments provide different opportunities for learning and teaching, as well as a range of outcomes related to health, well-being and connection to nature.


Mud digging, ©Chris Mackie

Researchers use a range of tools to learn about these different elements, but I think it’s hard to unpick such complexity into subjective human experiences, or statistical generalisations. Instead, I am specifically interested in how spending time in natural environments at school might allow children and teachers to develop the skills and desire to care for the world around them.

To do this, I’m observing the intra-actions between humans, nature and social practices during outdoor learning at school, to form a detailed account of some of the processes that emerge. I use a small video camera, audio recorder and bright orange notebook to try and capture moments where the different parts of this system that we call ‘outdoor learning’ come into relation with each other.

For example, some of the questions I ask when reviewing my observations might include:

  • How do teachers and children talk about, or come to know the natural environments that they are in?
  • Do the play or learning activities represent exploitative, conservationist or other relationships with nature?
  • What elements of these outdoor places are children drawn to?
  • How does this affect the non-human beings that live here, and how does that link to the educational goals of the activity?

This is different from some other research in the field, much of which focuses either on specific ways of teaching and learning outdoors, or measuring outcomes (such as connection to nature or physical activity) in ways that can be scaled up and applied in other situations.


Hill climb, ©Chris Mackie

Over the last sixth months, I have been visiting two schools regularly and spending time with several primary one and two classes (children aged between 4 and 7). One school is in a village with access to a garden and big old oak trees just over the wall, while the other is a large school in a recently constructed suburban housing development on the edge of a big town. They have quite contrasting approaches to primary one and the environments that are available to them, but it’s been fascinating seeing some of the commonalities in how the children play in their school’s outdoor spaces, particularly in terms of physical activity and movement.


Digging, ©Chris Mackie

I have over 100GB of materials that I’m now thinking my way through, before going back to see how the spring-summer term affects things. I’m looking forward to beginning to share stories about where I think ethics of care for the natural world could be nurtured during the first years of school.

At this early stage in the analysis, I’m starting by following three key strands. The first is about relationalities, and how children come to understand themselves in relation to the world around them: whether that be other living beings, like plants or minibeasts; processes such as photosynthesis; or even physical materials such as plastic. The nature of these relational entanglements form the basis of how we act ethically in the world. Seeing how they develop in early childhood may help inform practice and make links to other research on environmental identity.


Tree Club, ©Chris Mackie

My second strand looks at how the environments (physical, social and policy) of school-based early childhood education might nurture or hinder the type of relationality that leads to care. Where, when and how (or not) do children come into contact with other living beings, for example? Linked to this are considerations of how much agency both children and teachers have within these environments, and thinking in particular about play-based learning.

The final strand is how children’s direct experiences outdoors (e.g. of nature, or litter) relate to the cultural representations that they engage with in school and other contexts. For example, do the activities, places, digital media, books, stories and games that they come into contact with at school and home support or hinder the development of care for the world? What types of futures do they see represented? As young children spend more time in formal education and care settings, and the ecological crisis becomes increasingly urgent, taking a holistic view of this becomes more important, but is ethically and practically complex in itself.


Garden bed, ©Chris Mackie

These are big issues of critical importance to understanding how we may shape teaching policy and practice, to enable stronger learning for sustainability. By starting with two specific settings and the privilege of being able to pay attention to small interactions that maybe get missed in the flow of learning and play, I will be able to craft research outputs that can be put to work for a range of users.

I’d better get writing!

See our website for further information on outdoor learning, including facts, activities and inspiration to help you bring Scotland’s nature and landscapes to life for learners.​

All photos are courtesy of and ©Chris Mackie.

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