I remember a conversation with Marjorie Ouvry around 10 years ago, about whether we should be saying Outdoor Play or Outdoor Learning. We agreed on outdoor play, because of our beliefs that learning happens through children’s own play, when it has meaning to them. However, I also felt at the time that it was fine to use whichever term helped to create change in the quantity of time and quality of experience children got outside in their early years settings. If the practitioners, or indeed the local authority staff, needed to think of it as ‘learning’ (being an activity that carried more meaning and motivation for them), then it would be most effective to use that more valued idea.
In the last couple of years though, I’ve noticed increasing use of the term Outdoor Learning and have become uncomfortable about its ascendancy. Words matter: as words are tools for thinking, the particular words we use in ourheads (self talk) and to communicate with others (think together) influence the way we think – and have an impact on what we then do. I feel it’s time to open up a debate about the language we are using to think about and develop our practice outdoors.
My proposition is that what we really mean (or should mean in the UK with our traditions for nursery education from the British Nursery School) is Learning Outdoors, not Outdoor Learning. My reasoning is this:
Firstly, I trained in the 1980’s as a teacher in Science and Outdoor Education. When you just read the term ‘Outdoor Education’ here, such things as abseiling, creek-walking, canoeing, hiking, sailing etc. probably came to mind – actually that is Outdoor Pursuits. Outdoor Education should mean ‘education in and through the outdoors’ in its widest sense (education about the outdoors is embedded into all experiences, as well as being focused upon at times). Outdoor Education tends to mean a particular set of experiences that are indeed deeply meaningful and transformational for the participant, but it does not tend to mean learning in the bigger and wider sense of ‘in and through’ being outdoors. I think Outdoor Learning tends to set up a mind-frame, like Outdoor Education, of a set of experiences in the outdoors – just as ‘Forest School’ does (indeed another debate to be had is the almost synonymous use in many people’s heads of Outdoor Learning and Forest Schools, and perhaps this partly explains that muddling!)
Secondly, in the UK we have a foundational tradition of children being, playing and learning through play in the outdoors (as well as indoors) from our wonderful (and admired at the time by many other countries) Nursery Schools heritage – which seems to be strangely forgotten in the new discourse around Forest Schools. I know that what I believe in, advocate and work to realise is learning, across the whole child and the whole curriculum (whether emanating from inside the child or from external guidance documents) through capturing and harnessing what being outdoors does for and to the child – not a subset of experiences. My own life’s experiences in teaching have shown me again and again that children learn well outdoors, whatever the learning experience is. The learning is usually more relevant, more motivational and deeper when it happens IN the outdoors. I think this is better described by Learning Outdoors.
Finally, as an example of how words shape thinking and understanding (and possibly jeopardise good progress), take ‘Outdoor Classroom’. I’m really quite alarmed by the recent explosion in this concept – as being (especially in schools) a shelter big enough to seat the whole class together, so that the teacher can lead a lesson. This ‘classroom’ is dangerously close to being the box of the indoor classroom placed outside. It may not have physical walls, but I’d suggest that the dynamics, power balance, freedom and learning processes (things people unanimously identify as key features of the special nature of outdoors) change little from teaching and learning indoors! My feeling is that this is a serious red herring for real progress in children’s learning experiences. The outdoors IS the classroom. Its ceiling is the sky, the views, the rain, the sun, the wind and so on and on. It’s as big as the space the children have access to and can see beyond the boundaries. And it is a rich and open as nature and the adults have made it.
See how the words we use influence how we think, and how we share our thinking? So, the Masters programme I’m designing is called ‘Learning Outdoors in Early Childhood’. Perhaps it should be ‘Being, Playing and Learning Outdoors in Early Childhood’. If we are going to develop the use of the outdoors as a deep and effective place for children’s being, playing and learning, we need the word-tools to think about and discuss what it needs to be like so as to work best at helping children to thrive and grow.
What do you think?
Thanks to Robin Hood bilingual outdoor kindergarten in Berlin for the beautiful experience of being outdoors with toddlers, as captured in these images.