The great outdoors

Outdoor education is said to have many benefits for young people (credit @yiodawoo)
Outdoor education is said to have many benefits for young people (credit @yiodawoo)

Helen Bigham from Suntrap Forest Centre on the benefits of outdoor learning

Sir David Attenborough once said: “In moments of great grief, that’s where you look and immerse yourself. You realise you are not immortal; you are not a god; you are part of the natural world and you come to accept that.”

This is a vulnerable time for everyone and I’m not alone in appreciating the benefit of fresh air and enjoying nature every day. Walking in Epping Forest, I’m fortunate that I can socially distance myself. Even on some narrow paths I’ve scrambled in brambles to get away from other walkers. Families are also taking advantage of the forest, I’ve lost count of the many imaginative dens, swings and scavenger trails that have been created.

We need to promote nature in global decision-making and the important role environmental education has in helping young people to understand the impact of the climate emergency. Outdoor experiences can be a catalyst for powerful and memorable learning.

When teachers take learning outside, they report some powerful impacts. Children’s behaviour improves, whole classes are excited to learn, and kids who feel inhibited by the curriculum often thrive away from the confines of school. This way of teaching has been identified by Scottish local authorities as an important way to support children returning to school and protect them from infection.

Suntrap Forest Centre in Epping Forest has been a centre for outdoor learning locally for half-a-century and is now offering a free consultancy and training service for all Waltham Forest schools. Kerry Rollins, the head of Suntrap, said: “Thanks to funding from Waltham Forest Council, we’ll be able to support schools across the borough with free training and ideas to provide curriculum based outdoor learning in their own grounds.”

Some local schools and nurseries already have outdoor learning in place. Yardley Primary School in Chingford has a vegetable plot, composting and hedgehog homes on site. Lloyd Park Centre in Walthamstow provides a play area with a climbing ship, and mud kitchen. Curious Wilds, a ‘Forest School’ in Walthamstow, has received funding from St James Street Big Local to run a one-to-one family project in local woodland – with funded places for lower income families.

The lockdown has been the chance take a step back, to look at what’s working and what needs changing. Outdoor learning can be a useful solution to a very difficult problem and could potentially help develop fierce gatekeepers of a green future.