How outdoor learning is vital in schools

All of us have needs – physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualisation needs. The outdoors is an ideal place to both meet these needs and develop aspects of ourselves, no matter how old we are.


Maslow motivational modelCurrent theories and scientific discovery, re-affirms what many of us know instinctively that the body ‘keeps the score’.   Our bodies, like all animals, are incredibly sensitive to their environment, and are regulated by different sensory stimulus.   Bright lights and conflicting noise often put us on high alert, in contrast to the soft sounds of leaves fluttering or birds singing.  Our brains scan the areas that surround us, a smell of lavender soothes us, the multi-coloured leaves of autumn lift our mood.   Trees emit phytoncides, natural hormones that reduces the stress hormone cortisol.  As we relax, we open our sense of curiosity and learn.   In the outdoors we can make large movements and express our joy or excitement, we can ‘play’ – recycling stagnant energy and revitalise ourselves.


First, we may learn how to look after ourselves physically.   Do we need the toilet? Where can we wash our hands, am I dressed appropriately, what can I do if I feel cold?  I’m hungry.   I can do it. I can learn to meet my basic needs.  As I learn to do this, I build important internal knowledge that I am capable, I can look after myself, I can ask for help when I need it.   In the outdoors, children and young people learn to make a fire to keep warm, put up shelters for protection from the elements, set up washing stations, prepare food and drink and are responsible for looking after the place, themselves and others – including the non-human world.


How am I impacting the place where I am playing?   Am I aware of what is supporting me to meet my needs?   Where does the wood I am burning come from? Or the food?  How many species of the living world is helping me live today?  What did we eat for breakfast – any wild food there? Nettles or berries perhaps?  And what of the air quality today?   Is it fresh – how do we get fresh air?

Children outdoor learning And how about our safety needs.  We know we can’t learn unless we feel safe.  Our animal nature prioritises safety above all else.    For many of us the natural world provides other relationships that feel safe – the cover of a tree, the water of a stream, the softness of moss underfoot.   Many people’s traumas or challenges are to do with human relationships and how they have been treated.  The natural world remains a place that is non-judgmental and reflects back to us a place where we can belong.  We can explore risky play and edges that are challenging. This may include using tools with sharp blades or playing games that remove your sight (using a blindfold) or climbing a tree.   Safety and risk are intimately intertwined.   We need to know how it feels to be on an edge of what feels safe so that we can decided to stop and say no as we get older.  We need to be able to discern and assess for ourselves what is hazardous and what is our fear.  This helps us to regulate our feelings and helps us to be less anxious, supporting our mental health.

Mental Health is:

"The emotional and spiritual resilience which allows us to enjoy life and survive pain, disappointment and sadness.  It is a positive sense of wellbeing and an underlying belief in our own, and others, dignity and worth."

(Mental health promotion: a quality framework, Health Education Authority, (1997) London: HEA

Learning to take risks, listening to sensations that give us important information,  are all ‘muscles’ that need developing and experience practicing.  Wrapping ourselves in cotton wool and trying to overprotect is in the long run very dangerous for us.  Some hardship builds resilience and compassion and teaches us to afford others dignity and worth.


Providing time and space for children to choose what they are interested in and share this with their peers offers opportunity to build friendships, trust, to give and receive and feel part of a community of learners.   And after all this, it is entirely possible to back link this to the mainstream curriculum!   Our learning becomes ‘embodied’ and we can make sense of geometry because we have directly seen and experienced its application.    As we put up tarpaulins, we use angles to keep it rigid, we copy the repeated patterns of the pinecones and transform cotton cloth into charred material to make fires.  We understand our world because we have observed changes through the seasons and have watch how the leaves become the mud that grows our food.


If you would like to improve your outdoor learning provision and are looking for affordable online training for your staff team, The Outdoor Teacher’s Forest School Activities Online Training is a great place to start and you can try the course for free.
Interested in finding out more? Please contact, Marina Robb (Director of Circle of Life Rediscovery CIC and The Outdoor Teacher Ltd).


Marina Robb (PGCE; MsC, MA)  is Founder and Managing Director of Circle of Life Rediscovery CIC and The Outdoor Teacher Ltd, organisations that aim to transform education and health through nature.  She is a leading author, green practitioner and educator in the outdoor sector, an international trainer in the design and delivery of nature-based experiences and an advocate for the integration of environmental, education and health and wellbeing services. Marina is co-author of ‘Learning with Nature’ & ‘The Essential Guide to Forest School and Nature Pedagogy’.