Sutton High Prep School is taking class outside, with a new purpose-built space inspired by its pupils’ desire to connect with nature

Come rain or shine, Sutton High Prep School, Surrey will teach all pupils outside in a purpose-built outdoor classroom at least once a week. This change was inspired by its children, who said that walks they took during lockdown had made them calmer, happier and more able to concentrate. They also said that they wanted lessons that connected more with the environment and nature. 

Sutton High Prep has begun the multi-million-pound extension to its buildings informed by these architecture and design ideas from its 4 to 11 year olds. “Just prior to the pandemic, we initiated a teaching programme called Brains Matter, in which every morning children were asked to chart their emotional barometers and understand how and when their moods change and why. We also had weekly assemblies about how the brain works,” says Headteacher Anne Musgrove. “This stood the girls in great stead when the pandemic hit because throughout lockdown, they were able to notice when they felt better and why – and it was invariably when they were outside, immersed in the environment.”

“Small adjustments – wellies have now become part of the school uniform – accommodate the switch to outdoor learning”

This translated into action, especially when physical school returned. “When pupils returned to school and we were at the beginning of our planning stages for the extension, it became clear that they were now unhappy with being stuck inside all week. Combined with the obvious mitigations to the spread of Covid that being outside presents, along with the benefits of increased exposure to natural sunlight and vitamin D, it seemed like the obvious thing to pivot more towards outdoor learning,” adds Anne Musgrove.

At present, the plan is that at first children will all have at least one lesson a week delivered outdoors. Outdoor lessons will happen in all weathers so small adjustments – wellies have now become part of the school uniform – accommodate the switch. While they are there, they will also be able to learn plant and wildlife names, conservation skills and meteorology. “As teachers research how they can use the environment to enrich more formal teaching, from maths and biology to history to art, they will use it more frequently.”

Sutton High Prep believe this extension is a golden opportunity to positively contribute towards children’s health and wellbeing. With some sobering statistics being delivered in the aftermath of the pandemic (Anne Musgrove points to a recent NHS survey showing the proportion of children experiencing a mental health disorder had increased from one in nine in 2017 to one in six by July 2020), this makes sense. There are other factors here that will contribute to good health – being in the great outdoors is an antidote to children’s sedentary lives as it encourages more activity and exploration.  

Nower Wood Copy
The move outside was inspired by pupils at the school – and outdoor spaces are being adapted to accommodate different lessons

The Look Out, as it will be known, will be an outdoor terrace that accommodates up to 24 children. The floor will have a graphic paving system for outdoor maths, while planters will feature fruit and vegetables grown by the children and a compost making facility will be located close by. The building project, to be completed in September this year, will also include more indoor classrooms, but only natural materials will be used to replicate a feeling of being in nature as much as possible. As part of that, the school is moving away from bright colours and increasing focus on more calming decor that includes plants and greenery. Indoor classrooms will open directly onto a newly planted woodland area, with free flow between the areas.  

“As 20th century educationalist Margaret McMillan, who was light years ahead of her time, once said: ‘The best kept classroom and the richest cupboard are roofed only by the sky’. I think it took the pandemic to make us think more about these words,” says Anne Musgrove. “The result is an education that incorporates and works within nature because that’s what makes pupils happy.” 

Sutton High School

Further reading: ACS Cobham on the value of forest school