83% of Scotland’s school estate is outdoors and pupils spend around 20% of their time in this space – yet the full potential of this asset for learning and child development is rarely realised. Alastair Seaman of Grounds for Learning explains the significance of these spaces and suggests how school leaders can develop and use them to improve the quality of learning and teaching.
Learning and discovery
Learning in your grounds is different. Fresh air, natural light and open spaces blow away the cobwebs and stimulate the brain. Noisy and messy activities are easier outdoors, and large space allows a more kinesthetic, experiential way of learning that energises and motivates some pupils [especially boys] who find classroom learning unappealing.
Learning outside helps children understand the relevance of what they are doing to the real world and often makes strong cross curricular links. Relationships outside are different too. Children report that their teachers seem friendlier and their lessons more interesting.
Teachers are realising that grounds can improve learning in all curricular areas, not just the ‘usual suspects’ of PE, biology and geography. There are now resources available to help teachers use their grounds to teach numeracy, literacy, foreign languages, maths, design, art, history, music, RME and more. Grounds also present great opportunities for vocational learning, demonstrated by Inverness Academy, who recently dug up a football pitch to create an organic market garden enterprise.
A pupil-led project to improve school grounds can include a huge range of real world learning opportunities such as raising funds, consulting with peers, developing a vision and action plan, communicating with stakeholders, managing a budget, working with professionals, evaluating success, working as a team and public relations .
Teachers report that improving school grounds also improves learning in the classroom. A healthy and stimulating outdoor environment makes pupils happier to be at school and creates a better mental state for learning. Our survey of schools who had improved their grounds found that 65% reported an improved attitude to learning.
Grounds are obviously a vital resource for supervised sport, but they also have huge potential for the promotion of informal and unsupervised physical activity, which is crucial in encouraging physically active lifestyles beyond school and sport. This is increasingly significant as parental fear restricts the freedom of young people to explore and play outdoors. Options include traversing walls, activity trails, temporary play equipment, imaginative playground markings, varied topography, natural features like as boulders and tree trunks, outdoor stages, litter patrols, gardening clubs and cycle facilities.
Also important is the way that outdoor spaces are managed. For example, peer games-organisers can encourage the participation of those who might normally remain on the fringes while zoning your space will ensure that there is provision for different types of activity [including quiet rest!] so that the whole area isn’t dominated by football.
School managers need to consider risk outdoors – but also realise that children learn how to stay safe by managing risk through overcoming physical challenges. One school that had kept its small area of woodland out of bounds for many years opened it up on a trial basis and were amazed to discover that there were actually fewer accidents in the wood than in the rest of the playground.
We can’t change the famous Scottish weather but we can ensure that it doesn’t unduly hinder children from enjoying physical activity outdoors. Some form of outdoor shelter and a place to keep wet weather gear can make a big difference. Also important are the attitudes of teachers and playgrounds supervisors who can demonstrate that a bit of rain doesn’t have to stop fun and activity outdoors.
Healthy eating can be encouraged through growing food at school. Young people are more likely to try eating things that they have grown, prepared and cooked for themselves. Many schools are now developing food gardens, which vary from semi-commercial growing enterprises through to growing herbs and salads in pots and planters.
In our survey, 85% of schools who had improved their grounds reported increases in healthy active play.
Nature and sustainability
Even an inner-city asphalt playground can be turned into a wildlife haven with a little imagination using planters and mini-ponds, bird feeders and nest boxes to give young people regular daily experiences of wildlife throughout the changing seasons. Evidence suggests that early experiences of nature are important in developing sustainable attitudes and behaviours in later life. Gardening and growing things, animals as well as plants, helps children to learn about caring for life.
Grounds are the obvious laboratory for hands-on learning about food, soils, air, water, climate change, pollution and renewable energy. They also present an opportunity to develop more sustainable attitudes and habits, for example encouraging cycling or walking, growing food, litter management and composting. The Scottish Government’s ‘Learning for our Future’ Action Plan highlights that ‘the management of the school estate should reflect the values and principles of sustainable development. Congruence between what is taught and what is practiced is important for effective learning: without it, good teaching can be badly undermined.’ Does the management of your school outdoor environment demonstrate the sustainability principles that you’re teaching in class?
Grounds are the part of the school site which most belong to children and so young people read the quality of these spaces as an indication of the way that they themselves are valued [or not] by the school. What messages do your grounds convey to your pupils?
There is strong evidence that natural environments are beneficial for psychological and emotional health. Contact with nature is important for providing refuge from the pressures of life and relieving stress and anxiety while studies have shown that playing in natural environments can help reduce the symptoms of attention deficit disorder and increase concentration levels.
If you can develop and manage your grounds to provide a safe, fun and active environment, your children will feel happier about being at school. Spaces where children can get away from noise and bustle and have some quiet time with their thoughts will help them develop their emotional resources.
Most of the really important lessons in life, such as learning how to play fair, negotiate, make friends and deal with bullies, are learned in the playground. Grounds that provide for different types of activity, spaces for sitting and socialising and which are varied and interesting will encourage positive behaviour at break times, which translates in to classes that settle more quickly in lesson time.
Some children develop their social skills through quiet play, or just talking with friends, and need social areas which allow for small groups as well as large to gather. Other children socialise through physical play, developing not only physical skills but also team building and leadership skills.
Being involved in planning, improving and maintaining their grounds helps children to grow in confidence as they work with others and learn that they can bring about change. Children who struggle with classroom work often excel in practical outdoor projects, boosting their self esteem and giving them recognition from their peers. It also develops a sense of ownership and pride in the school, a key factor in reducing vandalism.
73% of schools who had improved their grounds reported improved behaviour.
Your grounds are the only bit of your school that much of your community sees and are often a shared resource. What kind of impression do they create? Working together on a grounds improvement project is a great vehicle for community engagement and all the positive learning that this can provide for young people. Practical grounds projects can engage parents, especially dads, who aren’t interested in your Parent Council or Christmas Fayre.
Taking it further
Grounds for Learning is the Scottish programme of Learning through Landscapes, the UK school grounds charity. It exists to help you develop and use these vital spaces.
- As an accredited CPD provider, they can design and run a training event to help your staff develop your grounds and provide them with the skills and confidence they need to use these spaces to improve learning and teaching.
- They can visit your school and advise you on how to develop and use your grounds more creatively. These visits can also include a twilight teacher training session or a workshop with your eco-committee.
- Their membership scheme offers access to a huge range of online resources as well as access to advice by phone and email.
- They offer a wide variety of books, DVDs and toolkits that will help you use your grounds to improve learning across a wide range of age groups and curriculum subjects.
- If you’d like to stay in touch with news and ideas, email them at email@example.com and they will send you a free termly newsletter.
You can find out more about all of these options through their website, www.gflscotland.org.uk or by calling 01259 220 887.
Scottish Government School Estate Statistics, 2007