Can outdoor learning help when you return to the classroom?
Robbie Kirkman explores the role that learning science outdoors can play as children return to school.
Children learning outdoors, pre lockdown.
[This article was first published in May 2020 and updated in September 2020. It is written in the context of the school closures during the pandemic, but is relevant to schools at any time]
Over the weeks of lockdown, there was an incredible buzz around the range of science activities on offer for children. With schools heading back, the question is how can we build on this momentum and how could science teaching look, post-lockdown?
Teachers and school leaders are working extremely hard to reconfigure learning spaces, as well as looking for curriculum opportunities that will ease young people back into school life and rekindle a love of learning - whilst looking after their social, emotional and mental health. Taking science lessons outdoors will go a long way towards squaring this circle.
Why take your science lessons outdoors?
It is well documented that outdoor learning benefits children’s mental and physical wellbeing, personal and social development as well as their achievement. Put simply – children love being outside, and spending time in nature is good for all of us. Science is essentially ‘finding out how the world around you works’ and so it lends itself to learning outside and having direct experiences in the environment. In addition, from a practical point of view, social distancing becomes much simpler and less stressful once children are outside and naturally diffuse into the space as aspects of the natural world catch their eye and artefacts pique their curiosity. Almost all UK schools have access to some outdoor space – this space is a free resource and these experiences are on your doorstep. During lockdown, we have all had to think very creatively about how we can use the resources and spaces around us to enhance our lives. What if we now took that same approach to looking at our school grounds and rethinking how we might use them for teaching science?
How might science learning look?
One way to approach science outdoors would be to use the Scientific Enquiry process as a framework to guide you. By taking this approach, you can meet the Working Scientifically requirements of the National Curriculum, covering subject content as well as realising the health benefits of spending time outside.
It is agreed that authentic scientific enquiries have a common formula; they begin with a period of exploration. This leads to a line of enquiry and a question to be investigated. This is followed by the collection and analysis of evidence - which leads to an answer to the question posed. What follows is an example of how this might look and it is most clearly explained using an example:
Begin by taking the children outside into the space you want them to look at. This space might be a patch of grass, the area underneath a tree or an old piece of wall. I’ve chosen an area underneath and around a horse chestnut tree on a school field. It is very likely that the children know this space well, but how often have they purposefully explored it?
Step 1 is the period of exploration. Think of this as a time for ‘noticing.’ Ask the children to explore the area - but with a particular challenge to complete. A scavenger hunt activity works really well for this. For example, can they find three types of invertebrate? Three different plants? Somewhere damp, somewhere dry? Something that smells? Something that makes a noise? and so on. This activity will focus them on looking around the chosen environment with a fresh pair of eyes and spark their innate curiosity with the aim of generating potential lines of enquiry. Remind and encourage the children to tune into their senses to help them explore (excluding taste!).
Share and record their findings from the scavenger hunt and ask the children to share other things that they noticed. Did any thoughts, wonderings or questions cross their minds as they carried out the task?
As far as possible, try to group similar observations, wonderings and questions into themes. Through discussion with the children, distil these into a number of specific questions that could be answered. At this point, children could break into smaller groups (socially distanced) or work on their own and develop an enquiry to answer one of the questions.
The types of Enquiry
The five types of scientific enquiry are observation over time, identification and classification, pattern-seeking, researching using secondary sources and fair and comparative testing. Different types of enquiry are suited to particular types of questions. For example, investigations outside where variables cannot be controlled, lend themselves to pattern-seeking tasks. Ultimately, the aim is that children can decide the most suitable enquiry type needed to answer a question that they are curious about. This takes practice and the teacher will need to scaffold this process to varying degrees.
There are countless numbers of questions that children might come up with from exploring the space under the tree. Here are a few examples of things they might have noticed, along with subsequent questions that might have been raised and the suggested enquiry types that would help to answer them.
- I noticed the tree cast a really big shadow. Question – How does the shadow change during the course of the day? Enquiry type – observation over time.
- I noticed that there are lots of different types of plants in the grass. Question – What types of plants are growing underneath the tree? Enquiry type – identification and classification.
- I noticed the tree was much bigger than all the other trees around our school. Question – How can we find out how old a tree is? Enquiry – Researching using secondary sources.
- I noticed the grass underneath the tree doesn’t seem to grow very well. Question – Where does the grass grow best in our school field? Enquiry type – Pattern seeking investigation.
As is often the case, answering one question leads to further questions. For example, the findings from the preliminary pattern-seeking investigation in the last example, might lead to a structured fair test to discover how well plants grow under different light or moisture levels.
Direct experiences outside generate authentic pupil-led enquiry
Science is, in essence, finding out how the world around you works. In order for children to engage in this process, first, they need to have direct experiences of that world that tap into their natural curiosity, and then we need to afford them the agency to follow their own authentic lines of enquiry. Take a second glance at that overgrown pond, rotten tree trunk or scrubby forgotten verge. What questions might your children ask? What might they discover? After all, even Darwin began by noticing the bugs in his garden.
Robbie Kirkman, Education Team Lead at Eden Project (furloughed at time of writing)
Image credit: wavebreakmedia @ Shutterstock
Take it further: read Robbie Kirkman's Explorify at home collection, Learning outdoors - living things.