Provision of Outdoor Education: constraints and enablers of children’s use of outdoors

The following study was conducted by a postgraduate student Ieva Valaviciute, at the University of Glasgow, in partnership with the Children’s Wood based in the North Kelvin Meadow, Glasgow, as well as a primary school in East Dunbartonshire, Scotland, under the supervision of members of academic staff.

We have resources and nature in Scotland that are just as good, but we’re not making as much use of themBronwen Cohen, Chief Executive, Children in Scotland, (Hepburn, 2007: 14)

There is a growing recognition of nature’s inherent value and its special contribution within education (Gullestad, 1997; Kahn & Kellert, 2002; Louv, 2005; Warden, 2010). The consideration that natural environments possess qualities that promote human development, however, is not new (Cobb, 1977). In Nordic countries as well as other mainland European nations, outdoor education is an established form of early-years education provision, well integrated into the educational systems, through the use of outdoor classrooms such as Swedish Skogsmulle or Danish Udeskole. In the UK, a recognition of what one would consider ‘risky-play-outdoors’ as both a need and right of young children is slow yet growing (MacQuarrie, et al., 2015; Änggård, 2009; Lysklett, et al., 2003; Nilsen, 2008; Sandseter 2009a). Forest School, for example, was established in the United Kingdom as a part-time provision in the late 1990s and used predominantly woodland areas as a learning platform. However, ‘Children in Scotland’ Chief Executive Bronwen Cohen expressed a disappointment about outdoor education provision in Scotland today following a visit to Norway: The effect is that children in Scotland do seem more constrained; that was perhaps the overwhelming difference” (Hepburn, 2007: 14). The awareness of the need to spend more time outdoors and the benefits it brings is present; however, the problems continue to exist, giving an impression that there must be some underlying reasons which inhibit the provision of outdoor education in Scotland today. Understanding the latter should therefore help us better the existing situation. There is a lot written about the problem of declining or ever still few opportunities for outdoor education in this country, however, comparatively little research explored the factors, both real and perceived, that might help explain such trends. Questions remain as to the underlying reasons for such disparity or why it is so that the Scottish education is on the verge of failing to provide valuable experiences in the outdoors, despite seemingly rich urban and rural environments on our doorsteps. The main purpose of the present research study was therefore to explore the perceptions of Outdoor Education and the influences enabling as well as constraining its provision in a small sample of Scottish schools and homes today.

Qualitative data in the form of semi-structured interviews were collected exploring the perceptions of 3 mothers and 3 teachers regarding outdoor learning and play. In line with the proposed framework by Aziz & Said (2012), the findings indicate that there are 3 main factors which influence the provision of outdoor education in Scotland today: individual, physical and social factors. Individual factors included those of age, gender and personal characteristics/preferences. Physical factors consisted of design/quality of facilities or the type of green space, design/quality of classroom/home, distance from/access to green space, urban design/safety, including traffic and health and safety concerns, weather and level of affordances, i.e. functional properties of the environments offering a child to interact actively with the environment (Gibson, 1979); finally, social factors such as culture, parents’ and teachers’ beliefs, economic barriers, curricular pressures resulting from the policies such as the National Improvement Framework, lack of local authority involvement are all recognised as the most influential factors which points towards its fluid nature. Social barriers to outdoor education provision are malleable, therefore, prone for change. Hence, if correctly administered, the provision of outdoor learning and play within Scottish settings is bound to change, giving a rationale for the future research to extend its horizons and practice to continue to striving for the better future of our children.

To conclude, the study provides the evidence which should encourage researchers and policymakers to meet at an intersection of research and policy. It proposes that if parents, teachers, outdoor education providers, local authority policy makers, and teacher education institutions all play their part through encouragement, direction and co-ordination at a national level, the situation in the country is bound to improve. Hence, it would be good to see a more active engagement by the government and its agencies with education scholars who have expertise in this area, as well as more input towards publicly funded research programmes. The research would generate data about the impact of this initiative as it unfolds, however, policy makers need to assure the public they would respond to such findings and act upon it as opposed to ignoring it whenever politically inconvenient. It also
giving that extra reassurance to teachers and parents that outdoor learning is something worthwhile to consider. Linking outdoor activities to learning outcomes would also allow it to become part of the curriculum so it would not be necessary to find
extra time and opportunities for outdoor learning in schools. highlights the importance of preserving the green and lush, unmanaged, natural spaces in the inner city areas such as the Children’s Wood. Organising children to access it on a regular basis is of high importance, given the profound impact it has on one’s educational achievement and potential for closing of the achievement gap, one of the main aims of the proposed National Improvement Framework. Presence of such spaces does not only allow easier access to the natural outdoors in urban areas but is a justifiable reason for policies promoting outdoor education to be issued better integrated into the health-care system, experiences of the natural environments into our
The natural outdoors should be classrooms, satisfaction into our lives. It is not a matter of going back to the free-range childhood of the previous centuries but rather a better understanding of principles of healthy child development, were a sense of connection to the world is created through the use of outdoor natural spaces.


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