Getting out and about

Advocates of outdoor learning highlight a wide variety of benefits for children and young people. Charlotte Goddard looks at the evidence and explores a range of projects that teach new skills.

Following six months of chemotherapy and three months of remission from cancer, 22-year-old Esther felt she was in a rut. "During chemo, people tell you what you shouldn't be doing - don't push yourself, don't do anything to make yourself more ill," she says. "It got to the point where I didn't think my body physically could do more."

Although she was not sure she would enjoy it, Esther took up an opportunity to spend a week taking part in outdoor activities with charity Climbing Out, alongside other young people who had gone through similar experiences.

"I feel I can now work on accepting what happened to me and finally start to move on and push myself," she says. "Nothing has ever helped me as much as this week has." In addition to boosting Esther's self-belief, the week also plugged her into a vital support network: "Being around others who have all faced hell has helped so much. Other people might get uncomfortable, but I know it would be difficult to say anything about treatment that would make the others here uncomfortable."

Kelda Wood founded Climbing Out, with the strapline "throwing a rope to children and young people with troubles", after her own life was changed by a severe leg injury. "I lost a lot of confidence because of what I couldn't do anymore," she says. "Then I retrained as an outdoor instructor and started to really see the benefits of outdoor activities. I was asked to speak to a young man who had similar leg injuries and had tried to commit suicide, and I thought we need to do something about this. Our very first programme was for young people in recovery from cancer and the programme had such a massive impact on them, it blew everyone away. I don't know what the magic is - all we are doing is outdoor activities, but the increase in confidence young people get is massive."

Whether it is taking part in a week-long programme of activities such as climbing and archery or making mud pies in a small area of the school grounds, it is clear that taking young people outside can have a massive beneficial effect. Depending on the approach, research has shown such activities can boost personal development, have a therapeutic effect on children suffering from trauma, improve school attendance and educational attainment, and have a positive effect on health and fitness. In fact, outdoor learning touches on almost every hot-topic policy area affecting young people, whether it is closing the achievement gap, reducing obesity or addressing challenging behaviour.

Research carried out by the University of Edinburgh, for example, found Forest School sessions - an approach to learning involving hands-on experiences in a woodland or natural environment - were better than PE lessons when it came to providing opportunities for sustained physical activity. Levels of activity at Forest School were 2.2 times greater than those on school days which included PE lessons and 2.7 greater than on inactive school days.

A recent study by the organisation Learning Away found 71 per cent of secondary school pupils attending residentials said they felt more strongly motivated to learn after the experience, while 72 per cent of primary school pupils said their behaviour was better.

However, a recent paper by Dr Roger Scrutton, honorary research fellow in outdoor education at the University of Edinburgh, found that the impact of a residential trip can be lost if a teacher does not embed the experiences in further learning back in the classroom. Recent research has also focused on the relationship-building aspect of outdoor education - Leeds Beckett University found students who took part in residentials at the start of university fostered strong personal relationships with other students and were less likely to drop out when things got tough.

Making a difference

While everyone involved in the sector is passionate about the difference it can make, the challenge is communicating that difference to policy-makers and funders, particularly in a climate of austerity. "The sort of thing the government wants to know is numbers that relate investment in physical activities to savings on health and welfare," says Scrutton. "What they want is someone saying if you put £1m in outdoor education, we will save £10m on health and education budgets."

The current challenge for outdoor activity providers and researchers is to move from qualitative research, which shows how particular children have benefited from outdoor learning, to a more quantitative analysis which can be used to convince commissioners of the value of such programmes. This is why the Institute for Outdoor Learning is currently gathering evidence for a major review of research in the sector, bringing in a range of findings from academics and providers.

"There is a lack of clarity among funders, commissioners and policy makers over the impact of the various forms of outdoor learning in the UK," explains chief executive Andy Robinson. "Also, we are keen to encourage more and better quality research in practice and impact evidence to ensure that the true value of outdoor learning is recognised."

Scrutton hopes his work will also provide figures to support the benefits outdoor education can bring. Over the next few years, he will gather evidence using consistent methodology from 20 or 30 projects run by the Field Studies Council across the UK, with the aim of providing numbers that show how young people can benefit from outdoor learning.

Jon Cree, chair of the Forest Schools Association (FSA), believes all children can benefit from outdoor learning. "We have always had schools targeting kids who find the classroom a challenge, but I would say it is equally beneficial for all learners," he says. "We have worked with gifted and talented children as well as children at special schools and looked-after children. Some academics have expressed a fear Forest Schools would become compensatory learning for kids who don't succeed in the classroom, but in our county just about every primary school is doing it."

The sector is generally positive about the new government's stance on outdoor education. Children's minister Edward Timpson, for example, was recently given a remit for developing "character and resilience", something which outdoor activities have been shown to measurably boost. The programme Nature Nurture (see box) found 90 per cent of the very vulnerable children it works with show an increase in resilience after attending the programme.

"We think the new government's attitude to the outdoor learning sector is fairly healthy," says Robinson. "I would expect a higher profile for the outdoors in general. It fits with so many policy goals, but there is a need to make sure some of the messages around encouraging folk into the outdoors aren't lost because they are spread across different departments."

While austerity has had little impact on the amount of outdoor education being delivered, the sector itself has changed somewhat. Cuts have affected local authority teams, with third sector and large private organisations stepping in to fill the gap, but not provision as a whole.

"There has been a change in the shape of the profession," says Robinson. "Small providers and local authorities have struggled, but organisations like PGL and Kingswood have hundreds of beds, so there are actually more beds available for residentials than 10 years ago."

Centres under threat

A recent survey by the English Outdoor Council revealed that of 152 local authority-run outdoor centres, 26 per cent faced closure, while 39 per cent were at risk.

This is one of the findings flagged up in wide-ranging research on outdoor activities provision published earlier this month by Sport England and the Outdoors Industries Association, which also highlighted concerns about the impact of funding cuts on quality.

Traditionally, outdoor education centres would have been staffed by experienced, highly-qualified teachers, but the tough financial climate has prompted some providers to reduce the use of "expensive" teachers in favour of less experienced, less costly employees.

Meanwhile, the report suggests commercial providers have been tempted to move to less adventurous activities that operate at more favourable ratios and deliver greater returns.

"It has got harder, with children's services slimmed to the bone, and with more academies and chains of schools," says the FSA's Cree, who is also training co-ordinator at Worcestershire County Council's Bishops Wood centre. "It was a different beast four or five years ago when local authorities were commissioning and running Forest Schools - now there is virtually no local authority support. The FSA stepped into the gap created by government cuts."

Martin Smith, chair of the English Outdoor Council, and Sport, Outdoor Learning and Adventure Services manager at Nottingham City Council, says many local authorities have moved from a pedagogical to more of a health and safety role when it comes to supporting outdoor education. "They have less experience of what is good quality outdoor education," he says.

Low-cost activities

Schools, and to a certain extent youth groups, tend to be the biggest commissioners of outdoor learning, but are increasingly developing their capacity to deliver as well as commission, which could involve low-cost activities such as camping in the school grounds. "There is no need to engage a specialist to deliver something a teacher or youth worker could do with basic competence," says Robinson. "Then when the time comes to bring in specialist resources, they can take the children further along that road because they have already started."

Smith is positive about the future. "We have 900 fiveand six-year-olds camping out in Nottingham for the first time over the next few weeks," he says. "I have been in the business for 30 years and I have never felt so optimistic. If only we can make use of the opportunities out there, and bring everything together."

Outdoor learning: key statistics

  • 71% of secondary school students who attended a residential felt more strongly motivated to learn
  • 84% said they got on better with teachers and 82% felt more confident to try new things
  • 58% of primary students who had been on a residential said they were better at schoolwork
  • 72% felt their behaviour at school was better, 75% said they got on better with classmates and 83% felt more confident
  • 70% of children - around seven million - visit the natural environment at least once a week
  • 12% rarely if ever visit the natural environment
  • Children from higher income households are more likely to visit frequently than those from lower-income families - 77% compared with 64%
  • Of 152 council-run outdoor centres, 26% face closure, 39% are at risk and only 35% are secure


Nature Nurture is an early intervention programme working with some of Aberdeen's most vulnerable young children, including those who have faced abuse and neglect. "Our primary focus is to build resilience and help children find a space where they can be safe, gain confidence and discover things about themselves," says project co-ordinator Terri Harrison.

The children, who range from 18 months to 11 years old, are referred by social workers, educational psychologists and health visitors. They are picked up from home or school, brought to Nature Nurture's base in the grounds of an independent school, and equipped with waterproof gear so they can explore areas of woodland in all weathers. The under-fives have a smaller area with sensory play equipment nestling among the trees, while the older children's woodland is wilder, with a stream running through it.

"Each staff member works with no more than two children, so they can build a close relationship," says Harrison. "Everything is child-centred. If they want to climb a tree, for example, the adult will facilitate that."

Many of the school-age children see themselves as failures at school. "We help them see they have talents, interests and creativity, and they can pass these things on to others, which is enormous for their self-esteem," says Harrison. Children might learn to use tools like knives to create things, develop bushcraft skills like fire-lighting, or show an interest in photography, painting or working with animals.

Most children stay with the programme for around a year, although some have stayed for two. The project also works with parents where possible. "We are not social workers, we have no power to take the children away so they find it easier to talk to us," says Harrison. "Some parents whose children are in care have their contact time here with us."

Nature Nurture tracks the impact of its programme very carefully, measuring children's development from an initial baseline in seven areas including physical and mental wellbeing and social competencies. The organisation's research suggests 90 per cent of children who attend Nature Nurture show an increase in resilience, and 60 per cent show improved engagement in education and increased school attendance.


Northampton teenager Megan Innes took part in a four-day adventure at the Essex Outdoors Centre in Bradwell earlier this year.

The 18-year-old college student, who finished treatment for synovial sarcoma in August 2012, joined 17 other young people in recovery from cancer to take part in activities including sailing, canoeing, high ropes, cycling, archery and power-kiting.

"We did the leap of faith, which was a thin beam where you climb to the top and hold on to a piece of metal, which was really scary," she says. "I have difficulties with my leg, so it was hard to get up, but it felt really good when I'd done it. You think you can't do stuff like rock climbing, so when you can it's a real boost. Also, it is good to be around people who have been through the same thing as you."

The residential was Megan's second trip organised by the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, which runs about 30 such events a year for children and young people aged eight to 24 who are recovering from cancer. The organisation says studies into the psychological effects of cancer in children highlight how important positive personal relationships with others are in coping with cancer. Often children struggle to establish independence and a sense of self-worth and control over their lives. The trust tries to build self-esteem through outdoor activities, especially sailing, and by bringing young people together with their peers.

"When young people turn 18 or have done a couple of residential sailing trips, they can volunteer on other trips," says Ellie Aarons, trip co-ordinator at the trust. "It's great for the young kids to have a role model who has been through what they have been through."

Children and young people are made aware of the free opportunities through their hospitals and treatment centres. "We aim to rebuild their confidence, and allow them to step outside their illness by trying something new and having a laugh," adds Aarons. "They get to just be a teenager again."


Outstanding-rated Ruddington Nursery introduced Forest School sessions for its three to five-year-olds about five years ago. The experience is valued by children and parents and also by Ofsted, which highlighted the nursery's Forest School provision as a "great strength", with the ethos of child-centred learning through outdoor play incorporated throughout the nursery.

"It all started when our area manager was doing her foundation degree in early years," says nursery manager and Forest School co-ordinator Michelle Tarry. "She looked at Scandinavia where children spend a lot of time outside and learn all the skills we want ours to learn. We're in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by outdoor space, and it seemed like the next step to introduce Forest School here."

The nursery uses public woodland, transferring groups of children by minibus. Children attend sessions once a week for eight weeks, allowing the nursery to track their progress more effectively. "The first week, we introduce them to the woodland as some children have never been into a wood and teach them safety rules such as what to do if they see a dog not on a lead," says Tarry. "We bring equipment with us such as magnifying glasses, and a mud kitchen, and children can use tools like saws and hammers. It is all child-led." At the end of the session, the children help cook food on a campfire and talk about what they enjoyed and what they would like to do next.

Tarry says the set-up costs for a Forest School can be relatively high as staff need special training, and there may be one-off costs for equipment. However, ongoing costs are low. The nursery provides waterproofs, but the parents contribute towards the minibus. The children develop skills such as risk awareness, team work and motor skills, which can be built on back at nursery.

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