Exploration is the physical manifestation of how we think about and experience our most meaningful geographies. A geography education without actively learning how to explore places is as perverse and frustrating as teaching music lessons without sound. Not only that, but in its widest sense, exploration has the potential to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things we as humans will ever do, so we should be given the opportunities to learn properly how to do it.
According to education advisor Sir Ken Robinson, active play is the natural and primary way that children want to learn. ‘The first years of a child’s life are the most important as their is the most rapid neurological, behavioural and physical changes that humans ever experience. To thrive children need to have care, responsiveness and stimulation from their parents, caregivers and educators. Play is a natural means to help optimise these rapid and, often irreversibly, timed opportunities. In other words, the environment in which a child grows up literally sculpts their brain.’
The sad reality is that millions of children are socially and geographically deprived. Their learning environments lacking the diversity of place-based and experiential opportunities that they need to thrive and as a result, they will not reach their full potential.
There is plenty of research to demonstrate that many children spend less time and have less space to explore, play and learn outdoors. Perhaps most shockingly, Dirt is Good ran a poll that found that three-quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates, that the amount of time spent playing in natural places has shrunk and that a fifth of children did not play outside on an average day.
There are a large number of good and complex reasons why parents do not let their children play (and so learn) outdoors and not overcoming these barriers comes with its own risks. Reversing the parenting cultures that are overly restricting many children’s freedoms will potentially take generations to overcome.
Partially as a response to this situation, an increasing number of doctors are providing social prescriptions. Instead of being offered medicine for a mental or physical illness, patients are being prescribed time with nature, volunteering, doing sport or some other (usually outdoors) activity instead.
Teachers are, in many ways, arguably in a better position to intervene and provide times and spaces for children to benefit from experiences that not only help them to learn, but to be well. Teachers can create both formal and informal times and spaces that do not just help children who are ill, but help children who are well to remain well or even become more well. Some may not think that teachers should not have to worry about children’s wellness, but as a former geography teacher I think that making sure children are well is not only an important responsibility but is actual vital if the best learning and educational outcomes are to be achieved.
My friend Beth Collier is a nature-based psychotherapist who uses people’s connection with nature to support wellbeing in Croydon, south London. Beth talks about how nature is her ‘co-therapist’ that not only shares a therapeutic relationship with her clients, but is available to them outside of any specific session they share together. Her clients learn to develop a relationship with nature that can always be available to them. Perhaps more teachers could recognise and use this approach, seeing nature not just as something which is taught, but as a teacher in its own right.
Like parents, many teachers face an interwoven set of barriers that make it hard to go on field trips and take learning outdoors. Various kinds and combinations of fear, risk, administration, curriculum, standards, leadership, training, confidence and access can all shrink spaces and opportunities for learning.
The reality is that the benefits of appropriate outdoor learning, in any subject across the curriculum, can far outweigh the costs. When teachers take learning outdoors they report some powerful impacts: Children’s behaviour improves, whole classes are excited to learn, and individuals who feel inhibited by the curriculum often thrive in an outdoor environment. Learning about wildlife, wild places or vital skills like navigation is richer, more enjoyable and catalysed by being inside and connected to the experience. When adults think back to their own happiest memories of childhood, they frequently recall the joy of playing outdoors. Play is not only central to children’s enjoyment of childhood, but teaches critical life skills such as problem-solving, teamwork and creativity.
Not teaching any lessons outdoors is strange. Learning outdoors and in the ‘real world’ is what humans have always done.
The good news is that there are thousands of teachers who do understand the value of learning outdoors and provide the energy and leadership to make sure children in their care get to have a range of quality outdoor learning experiences. From giving children good amounts of break time to local and international fieldtrips or offering awards like the John Muir Award, the UK is fortunate to have a brilliant and strong community of educators who deliver outstanding opportunities. But we need far more.
This Thursday’s Outdoor Classroom Day is a demonstration of a growing movement of schools that are taking action to increase and improve outdoor learning. So far there are over 2 million children involved worldwide across 19,000 schools. Nearly 600,000 of these children are in UK schools.
The campaign is about more than just one day; it is a catalyst to inspire more time outdoors every day, both at school and at home. It believes that teachers have the power to inspire other teachers, parents and the wider community to give children the time, space and permission they need to play and learn outdoors. It is advocating for 90 minutes of playtime in every school around the world. Everyone can do something to make sure children experience the benefits of being outdoors. Parents can encourage their child’s school to get involved and take steps towards more time outdoors at home. Anyone who cares about childhood can help spread the word about the importance of outdoor play and learning.
With no freedom there’s no exploration and with no exploration there’s no discovery, so let’s free and teach children to become explorers.
Daniel Raven-Ellison is a guerrilla geographer and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. So that countries can participate on a day that suits their climate and fits with their school term times, the global Outdoor Classroom Day campaign has multiple dates — the next are on 12 October and 17 May 2018
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