Global voices for learning and play outdoors
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By Julie Mountain, Director, Play Learning Life CIC
Which memories of childhood have stuck with you into adulthood? The chances are, many of them involve playing outdoors, with friends, whether in a garden or park, or further afield as you grew older and more independent. And if you’re now working in the countryside or environmental sector, it’s even more likely that these early experiences shaped your thinking and inspired the professional and philosophical choices you’ve made as an adult.
Tabloid tales of young children glued to screens and parents too fearful to allow their children outdoors are more or less just that – tall tales. Undoubtedly there is more traffic on the roads than in the past, and yes, access to open spaces in urban areas is under pressure – but children do still play out in streets, gardens and parks, even if isn’t as frequently as it was, and they aren’t roaming as far and as freely as they used to thirty or forty years ago. We know that interacting with natural resources and with nature is as important now as it has ever been.
What is in short supply is adults with knowledge, skills, enthusiasm – and vitally, the time – to help children engage meaningfully with the natural world. Whilst we know that learning and playing outdoors has meaning for children and is memorable (1), the pedagogical approach that embraces the environment as a ‘teacher’ is not taught on teacher training courses and with the exception of the early years frameworks in the UK nations, outdoors is not a required learning environment. It’s therefore all too easy for children to spend all day at school sitting down indoors, not only missing the opportunities for rich and purposeful learning that the outdoors offers, but also failing to move – which we also know children need to do in order to learn (2).
In the UK, Learning through Landscapes has promoted the importance of learning beyond the classroom for almost 30 years and was a founding partner of the International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA), an entirely voluntary run non-profit organisation aimed at bringing together school grounds / schoolyard practitioners around the globe to share good practice and develop policy.
The ISGA hosts international conferences every 2 years, and draws hundreds of participants from dozens of countries, many of which are at the start of their ‘school grounds’ journeys. Where policy and practice are well developed - for example in the UK, European countries, USA, Canada and Australia - the ISGA members offer support, inspiration and practical advice; with territories just starting to grow the idea of learning beyond the classroom, the ISGA learns much about how to gain a foothold where there is no culture of non-classroom learning.
Knowledge is shared via the ISGA website (www.internationalschoolgrounds.org) and at conference presentations, webinars and online ‘socials’. The ISGA’s other key communication tool is International School Grounds Month, which takes place every May and is now also linked into Outdoor Classroom Day. The ISGA’s guides, available in four languages, contain hundreds of lesson ideas developed by educators, tested by children and all aimed at adding depth to learning by making use of the environment on the school’s doorstep. You can view them on-screen or download them free, from the ISGA website: https://www.internationalschoolgrounds.org/activity-guides. Sorted into 11 categories covering environmental objectives as well as broad curriculum ideas, there is something for every schoolyard, every age group and every level of experience.
ISGA co-founder Sharon Danks explores the possibilities of schoolyard transformation in her book Ashphalt to Ecosystems (3) which took inspiration from many UK school environments including the Coombes Primary School where pioneering Head Sue Humphries created an almost seamless indoor-outdoor learning environment. Hundreds of educators, landscape designers and environmental practitioners visited this school whist Sue was Head, and took away memories of today’s children playing and learning in a rich, ecologically diverse, exciting, child centred outdoor space – now, these visitors are sharing their knowledge in their own countries and schools.
We simply cannot expect today’s children to care about or for the natural world if they have no first hand experience of it, if they’ve never seen the impact of their own actions on the world or made a change that’s improved the environment – even the very smallest actions such as caring for tadpoles, growing veggies in a school allotment or learning to identify birds or trees is a step in the right direction. As we become an increasingly urbanised society, the role of school grounds in providing this connection back to nature is ever more crucial and the ISGA and its constituent organisations and individuals work hard to provide realistic, achievable ways for schools to find the time and space to do this.
The ISGA continues to promote this approach and you can support the campaign to ensure children continue to access the special nature of outdoor learning and play by joining the ISGA and sharing what you know with members from 30+ countries and five continents. And if you happen to find yourself in Brazil later this year – the first ever South American ISGA conference takes place in São Paulo from September 20-23 (4) and will explore ‘Natural Playspaces for Children’ – most definitely the launch point for children growing up knowing, understanding and caring about the natural world around them.
About the author
Julie is a current member of the ISGA Executive Committee and has written this article on behalf of the International School Grounds Alliance.
She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
1 - Many research papers, including from Ofsted: Learning Outside the Classroom (2008) ref: 070219
2 - Many books and papers, including A Moving Child is a Learning Child (2014); Connell and McCarthy; Free Spirit Publishing
3 - Asphalt to Ecosystems (2010); Danks; New Village Press
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