Michelle Sheehy is head of Millfield Primary School, Walsall. She’s been a Primary School teacher for 22 years and is a National Leader in Education. Her school has developed an extraordinary commitment to outdoor learning, which has been recognised by Ofsted. Here she writes about the journey the school has been on to develop its outdoor learning programmes.
Although we would like to say that we had based our practice on substantial research, we, in fact, began our journey into outdoor learning due to a set of circumstances and coincidences. Several of our staff members had an interest in the environment and nature and were keen walkers. Although our school frontage is on a council estate, our school field at the back leads down to a canal, beyond which is farmland, so the aspect at the back of the school is very different to that at the front. The classrooms at the back of the school have a beautiful view.
Our Eureka moment occurred whilst a group of us were looking at this view and we realised that we were not using the valuable resources at our finger tips.
There followed a substantial amount of work undertaken by ourselves and the local community, with very little expenditure we managed one summer to acquire a wild flower meadow, bird hide, den, outdoor instruments, wild area (the woods as the Early Years children call it), a raised pond and allotment areas. Full details of how we achieved this are given on our website.
Our Nursery children were the first to benefit taking part in Woodland Wednesday where they spent either a morning or afternoon outdoors without coming into Nursery at all. They had a different teacher for that session and we watched their confidence grow and their language develop rapidly as they took part in the various activities.
Obtaining several grant we were able to buy some kayaks and canoes to use on the canal and have integrated their use into the curriculum in Key Stage 2. However, during the Olympics our reception children held their own version of the games and pleaded to be allowed to use the canoes, which they did, very successfully!
We have long felt that the motivation, excitement, resilience and ability to problem solve apparent in our Nursery and Reception children diminishes as they move through the school. In order to preserve and promote this, we asked our EYFS (early years foundation stage) team to explain the ethos behind the learning in early years, in the hope that this could be replicated throughout the school. The best way we have found of achieving this is through our outdoor provision. Our outdoor provision provides challenges, and demands teamwork and resilience. When asked when they felt their best sense of achievement most of our children referred to an experience they had doing one of the outdoor activities.
With this in mind, we used most of our PE funding to provide equipment children were unable to provide themselves. We therefore now have a supply of walking boots, waterproofs, thermals, tents and other camping equipment which means we can take children hillwalking and on residentials at very low cost. Last year our walking group in Year 6 were going on hikes of 15K. We are aware of the need to improve fitness and many of the children do not enjoy traditional team games, but they now have the chance to achieve something worthwhile and improve their fitness at the same time.
The other advantage in outdoor education is the improvement in behaviour. In an attempt to avoid a possible exclusion a party of boys was taken to Snowden for a week where they took part in very challenging adventurous activities. It saw a turnaround in behaviour, due mainly, we feel, to the raising of the self- esteem of the children that took part.
The latest addition to our outdoor equipment is our narrow boat, Tucana. This has been a long term project, taking in all, about 6 years to complete. The boat has been in-situ since last summer. We have used it as an outdoor classroom and invited other schools to come and see “Santa on the Boat”, a project which was very successful in challenging the organisational abilities of our “elves” in years 5 & 6.
At the end of this month, three of our staff members will be trained to drive the boat and obtain the qualification which means we will be able to take children out. The intention is to take the children camping on the boat in batches. However, as usual, we expect the project to expand, as all these things have a habit of doing.
We have not based our commitment to outdoor learning on research, but have almost stumbled upon the benefits accidentally. Having seen these benefits, we will continue to grow and develop our outdoor provision as much as we possibly can. We firmly believe in the development of the whole child. Every child is good at something, and the job of primary school teachers is to find out what it is and to enthuse the children. Outdoor learning is an integral part of that process.
If anyone is wondering what the benefits are – just look at our children!