Rose Hardy, Headmistress of Habs Girls, says it’s time that our schools recognised the value and benefits of providing older pupils – girls especially – with outdoor education

With an increase in forest schools and the benefits of outdoor learning widely reported, getting pupils outside and into the fresh air has become a top priority for many schools over the last few years. For early years and primary-age children, schools have risen to the challenge of creating adventurous and inspiring outdoor education, which has been shown to improve wellbeing and concentration at school. Unfortunately, from age 11 upwards, the emphasis around outdoor learning seems to tail off, or is largely confined to the court or pitch during scheduled PE lessons.

This is a great pity, since we already know that young people spend far too much time indoors in front of screens. As schools, we need to be doing as much as possible to stimulate a desire for being outside. When children reach senior school, everything switches to academic progress, exams and assessments. This simply nurtures the classic stereotype of young people who don’t really want to be outside. It becomes a vicious circle too, because the more we restrict outdoor learning within older age groups at school, the more reluctant they will be to engage with the idea.

“From age 11 upwards, the emphasis around outdoor learning seems to tail off or is largely confined to the court or pitch”

Outdoor learning is not just about wellbeing or getting out into the fresh air. There is an academic value to learning outside of the classroom. Biology and other STEM subjects should be taught outside more often with timetabled activities as part of the curriculum, not simply a ‘nice to have’ add-on on a sunny day. From developing horticultural expertise to studying and observing geographical surroundings, being outside strengthens academic development and provides a visually stimulating and multi-sensory learning environment for older pupils as well as for younger ones.

We are constantly teaching our young people about the impact of climate change and how to take better care of our world. That also means understanding and recording seasonal changes, recognising local wildlife and identifying the plants and trees that grow on our doorstep. Often, when climate change is discussed, children think of the polar ice caps or the extinction of far-off species. While these are important considerations, children should be encouraged to think about the hyper-local impact – the changes that they might see around them. Caring for our world starts at home in our local environment, so schools have a duty to educate older children to become stewards of their own campus.

Young people need more time to experience – and learn in – outdoor settings, says Rose Hardy

Schools are very good at providing a raft of co-curricular activities, many of which are sports related and will naturally take place outdoors, so it is the everyday curriculum that needs more work. Getting older children and teenagers outside as part of their daily routine, should be happening in the same way that it does for primary school children – and across multiple core subjects. For example, getting pupils involved and enthused about gardening will equip them with the skills to grow and nurture, fostering a deeper appreciation of the values of patience and care in order to achieve good results. It can also be employed, of course, to teach science subjects in practical and visually engaging ways.  

Taking co-curricular activities a step further, schools can embrace the idea of a school allotment, set up a bird watching club or build partnerships with linked charities to give back to their local communities through outdoor work. In doing the bare minimum around outdoor learning for older children, schools are essentially sending the message to teenagers, that being outdoors isn’t that important. It’s time to redress the balance and give much-needed focus to outdoor learning – and show the wider benefits of being outside to our young people.

Habs Girls

Further reading: Cranleigh School on the importance of adventures