The Inside Track on Outdoor Learning

I remember three things very vividly from my primary school education: on my first day of school, I remember feeling immensely proud of the little plasticine/márla ‘biscuits’ I made with the approval of my first ever teacher Mrs Kenny. A few years later, I remember the delight of learning the wonderfully atmospheric poem The Listeners by Walter de La Mare. And lastly, I cannot overstate the excitement of childhood memories from getting on the train in Galway and going to Dublin Zoo with my pals for a school tour. It is that last memory that leads me to this blog post where I’d like to share some thoughts on what I believe are the under explored opportunities of outdoor learning – not just for little ones but for much older students too.

At ‘The Sipping Point’ recently we ran a session on the great outdoors with a promise we would “experience some outdoor learning activities, and begin to appreciate the potential for learning in, through and about the outdoors”. So it was that on two days in January (one cold but crisp, the other cold and damp) we found ourselves gathered to set off on an ‘Outdoor Learning’ walk under the expert tutelage of Dr Orla Kelly, DCU School of STEM Education, Innovation & Global Studies.

So what exactly did we do, you may wonder? Here’s a very brief summary of what our group did in about 30 minutes:

  • We started off with everyone closing their eyes and identifying 10 sounds from the surrounding environment – conversations, distant and nearby traffic sounds, birdsong, the trundle of a pull-along suitcase, to name just some.
  • Then, keeping close to one another, we moved through park being asked to identify shapes we identified on our palms and then in nature.
  • Our next activity was what can only be described as a tree hugging exercise with a difference: we were asked to guide a colleague with his/her eyes closed towards a tree for them to explore with with their hands, keeping their eyes closed. During this process, the ‘guider’ was responsible for the safety of their peer,  ensuring the colleague did not stumble over twigs or walk into branches en route. The ‘hugger’ was then asked to identify the tree – which proved harder than it sounds, if one is deliberately thrown off the scent, I might add!
  • Next we gathered up a palette of nature’s bounty on a January day, sourcing different coloured and textured objects such as leaves, branches, and pine cones from the ground.
  • We finished with a short reflection on how we felt at the end of the walk, asked to write very briefly how we felt at that point. Words such as “alert” “happy”, “peaceful” “in touch with nature” – and yes “cold” – were all mentioned.

Applications of outdoor learning?

Back indoors we discussed the most striking aspects of the exercise, and if/how we might apply it elsewhere. Apart from the obvious novelty factor in doing something different with students, there seemed to be a number of promising opportunities for embracing the outdoors in teaching practice, including:

  1. As a team-building exercise – given the known challenges of group projects, we wondered if this type of experience might potentially help to prepare students for working in groups. At a minimum, it should help them get to know one another a little better.
  2. As a grounding/focusing exercise – the change of environment could potentially help to prepare students’ readiness for a task and declutter the brain from distractions. Notably none of us used our phones during the session – and didn’t even notice we hadn’t until after it was pointed out which says something these days.
  3. As a health and wellbeing enabler – the benefits of walking (versus sitting) probably need no further elaboration.
  4. As part of a commitment to sustainability which is at the core of the DCU Strategic Plan. As Orla described, it is important now more than ever that our students have opportunities to develop a love of nature, “as a precursor to pro-environmental attitudes and actions”.
  5. As a tool for reflection – speaking personally, this is where I see enormous potential as an academic developer. The session reminded me of an experience I had at a recent SEDA conference workshop on Walking as a Tool for Reflective Practice. Led by Susannah Quinsee and Anise Bullimore, this guided walk was particularly useful for the way it helped pairs of participants reflect on an experience “that went wrong” and learn from it for the future. Having seen first hand how the well the approach worked at a conference, and how useful it could be for encouraging conversations between colleagues, I have high hopes to give it a whirl at the next DCU Teaching and Learning Day.

If you are reading this and thinking it all seems rather simple, it is, and perhaps that is what makes it memorable. But isn’t that the beauty of it, if you have good reason and a suitable cohort to try it out? If you’d like further evidence, then check out the inclusion of outdoor learning in the Innovating Pedagogy 2019 report – the section on ‘Place-based Learning’ includes several examples and references if you wish to dig in to this topic further.

References

Ferguson, R., Coughlan, T., Egelandsdal, K., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Hillaire, G., Jones, D., Jowers, I., Kukulska-Hulme, A., McAndrew, P., Misiejuk, K., Ness, I. J., Rienties, B., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Wasson, B., Weller, M. and Whitelock, D. (2019). Innovating Pedagogy 2019: Open University Innovation Report 7. Milton Keynes: The Open University. Retrieved from https://iet.open.ac.uk/file/innovating-pedagogy-2019.pdf

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