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Get them outside!
Covid has brought home the value of getting outside. Mr. Chaddock looks at why reevaluating the importance of outdoor education is so important for all of us in 2021.
A terrible thought
Even before the Covid pandemic hit there were already serious concerns about how much time our children spent indoors. Surveys from the US and the UK suggested that many children now spend less time outdoors than those serving a prison term. Then the pandemic arrived and handed us all a yearlong sentence. With vaccines on their way, perhaps there will be one or two silver linings to this ordeal. Covid and its associated lockdown has accentuated the importance of being outdoors and its tremendous influence on our mental health.
Let’s stop and reflect
For schools this presents an opportunity to stop, analyse and reflect on the quality and breadth of their outdoor education provision – a forensic examination of every field trip, day trip, overnight trip; every year-group, domestic and international trip on offer. We can take this opportunity to make sure all our pupils have access to a variety of different outdoor experiences. How are they linked to the ethos of the school? How do they grow soft-skills and life experience as well as support subject understanding?
This need not involve expensive overseas trips. I hope there is also a fresh focus on domestic travel over international. It is often the case that we jet-off to far flung lands when the countries we are lucky enough to live and work in offer everything we need in terms of learning outcomes and experiences. With regards to safety, expense and the environment – I hope there is a reassessment of our homegrown options.
Outdoor education and mental health
Most international schools have an ethos and values that are aligned. There is almost always a fundamental commitment to high quality pastoral care, which the pandemic has reemphasised by putting mental health at the forefront for school counselling teams across the globe. A great place to address mental health is outside the classroom – through outdoor education and play, pupils are exposed to a lot more than just fresh air.
Neuroscientific research suggests that by stimulating the production of the chemical dopamine the brain is more susceptible to learning and we feel happier. This is achieved through the activation of the reward system, a process heightened in uncertain and unfamiliar environments, places which the classroom cannot simulate. Through well planned outdoor education our pupils are out of their comfort zone but remain safe.
Dopamine increases the efficiency in which neurons make connections, increasing the likelihood of engagement and learning within pupils. This is more prevalent in meaningful real-world interaction because what the outside world gives our pupils is the opportunity to be spontaneous. The level of uncertainty inherent in an outdoor environment is perfectly conducive to all kinds of learning, the development of soft-skills and more importantly the experience of joy.
Connection to other learning
And it’s not just the exhilaration of being outside. It is simple for teachers to see the links between outdoor education, the curriculum and learning, but we must make the case for getting outside to our pupils and perhaps even more importantly their parents. The curriculum links are, amongst others, mathematical, scientific, historical and geographical. We educate pupils about the environment and tell them to make better choices, but will our children really help save something they are not passionate about, cannot relate to, or have not even seen?
Outdoor education is a way of reconnecting our lockdowned urbanised youth with the bucolic world around them. We have to shift focus even further away from mere, secondhand knowledge retention, linking classroom concepts with practical skills and real-life experiences outside, and in the process develop the so-called soft skills that our pupils and their future employers ultimately need.
On the shoulders of giants
Of course, none of these ideas are new. In my school, established by Frances Mary Buss (1848 – 1894) and Sophie Bryant (1850 – 1922), our founding ethos is based on the ideas of the Swiss educator, Johann Pestalozzi (1746 – 1827) whose central idea was that every aspect of the child’s life contributed to the formation of their personality, character and capacity to reason. Buss wanted this type of education for girls as well as boys. Pestalozzi’s educational methods were child-centered and based on individual differences, sense perception, and the student’s self-activity.
He was an important influence on the developing theory of physical education and refined a programme of physical exercise and outdoor activity linked to general, moral and intellectual education that reflected Pestalozzi’s ideal of harmony and human autonomy. Later Sophie Bryant, a ‘Doctor of Mental and Moral Sciences’, would imbed this belief at North London Collegiate School.
This educational philosophy is clear to see in the work of Kurt Hahn (1886 – 1974), the establishment of the Duke of Edinburgh Award and United World Colleges in the UK. Hahn’s Ten Expeditionary Learning Principles have been integrated into the IB Learner Profile and the idea of an adventurous IB school culture.
Let’s do it!
Best practice in education is rarely about reinventing the wheel – this is about refocusing and re-examining what we do, how we do it and why we do it. I believe there has never been a better time to take a closer look at our outdoor education provision.