Special Report: Research: Outdoor Learning - Research evidence: Study 5

The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom is a charity that promotes the opportunity for all children to experience life and lessons beyond the classroom as a regular part of growing up. It provides support on the ground, facilitating the sharing of best practice and promoting the benefits of outdoor learning for engaging children in education

The different learning approach used by Forest Schools supports improved attainment
The different learning approach used by Forest Schools supports improved attainment

Outdoor learning spaces: the case of Forest School

F Harris, 2018

The learning environment can impact on children’s engagement. Taking children out of the classroom to an outdoor location, a novel learning space materially different from their usual learning environment, provides a different context and environment for learning and requires different learning and teaching styles.

Forest Schools are increasing in popularity in the UK and internationally. This form of teaching allows children to take part in regular learning experiences in an outdoor setting.

Forest Schools are led by a qualified practitioner and children attend over a period of time, usually weekly for at least a half term, sometimes throughout the school year. Sessions focus on raising confidence and self-esteem through small, repeatable tasks and nurturing personal, social and emotional development through social and team-working skills. Forest schools are sometimes described as “alternative education” but are increasingly incorporated into mainstream school activities despite not being part of the national curriculum.

This study focused on the learning space provided by a Forest School, and sought to understand the significance of being outdoors – how it differed to the classroom environment in supporting pupil learning experience and how it affected teaching and the dynamics of learning.


  • Physical mobility and interactivity: Outdoor learning environments are less structured and allow for greater physical mobility. Increased physical activity has been shown to impact positively on educational engagement and attainment. Removed from the structure, social dynamics, norms and expectations of the classroom, the new learning spaces offered new ways for children to explore and learn. When moving outdoors, the relationship between children and adults was also subtly redefined. Learning became more interactive and less dominated by the national curriculum. Within the Forest School, practitioners felt that personal, social and emotional development is more significant than national curriculum topics.
  • Value of being outside: The use of outdoor space allowed children to “breathe” and express themselves. In such a big space, there was less “overload”, and children can go to a quite area, choose to be on their own or to interact with a larger group. Being outdoors also stimulated all the senses and was associated with enjoying themselves. The “wonder” at natural things made learning more exciting and memorable and therefore learning was more likely to be retained.
  • Attainment: While outdoor learning can contribute to many of the national curriculum topics, Forest School was and is seen as separate from formal teaching and learning. Although there is no formal curriculum within Forest Schools, it can support children’s learning in many ways, which then reflects on attainment in the classroom.
  • Flexible approach: Forest Schools contrast with the rigour and pressure of formal teaching – there are no formal targets, learning outcomes or prescribed attainment levels relating to children’s time at Forest School. This gives leaders permission to take a more flexible approach, providing time for the group to follow up opportunities for learning as they arise and to follow children’s interests.

Implications for practice

  • The use of outdoor spaces for learning allows for greater physical activity and greater opportunity for children to choose whether to interact with a larger group or work quietly alone.
  • Being outdoors makes learning more exciting and therefore more memorable.
  • The different learning approach used by Forest Schools, and the different space in which it is delivered, supports improved attainment and behaviour once back in the classroom.


Justine Lee, fundraising manager, Council for Learning Outside the Classroom

Covid19 has impacted on all our lives and will continue to do so for many months to come. It has however presented the opportunity for society to re-look at the way teaching is delivered and to be innovative in how it does this.

Taking learning beyond the classroom is a vital tool to help deliver the curriculum safely and support children’s learning, health and wellbeing as they transition between school and home.

In recognition of the consequence of a sustained period of absence from school on the mental health of pupils, both the Welsh and Scottish governments put outdoor learning at the heart of their guidance to schools on reopening more widely. In its most recent guidance (2 July 2020), the Department for Education in England also advocates that “schools should make use of outdoor spaces in the local area to support delivery of the curriculum”.

Children and young people are dealing with high levels of disruption, uncertainty and a lack of physical connection with their friends and with the natural world – and the inequalities are widening. Learning outside the classroom offers a well-evidenced intervention – with almost universal availability and at very low cost – that can make such a big difference to many children and young people.

Outdoor learning can play a central role in education as we recover from Covid19 by:

Creating more learning spaces, overcoming the issues of finite capacity within physical structures

Helping with infection control supporting physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing

Enabling active learning and the opportunity for students and teachers to engage with learning in new ways.

Teaching doesn’t need to take place in school buildings. Moving outside, either within the school’s grounds or utilising other spaces within the local community, means teachers will be able to deliver the curriculum safely and effectively while ensuring they meet government guidelines on physical distancing.

There are challenges with taking learning outside. However, these challenges centre on the physical aspects of delivering outdoor learning sessions – moving from inside to outside spaces, equipment to be used during the session, first aid, the weather, hygiene and what to do if using a location/venue away from your usual site.

The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom together with the Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel (OEAP) have put together a useful guide to support teachers to take learning beyond the classroom walls. The guide has been developed to help teachers and leaders understand how learning outside the classroom can be used to manage and adapt to the current situation and build strong foundations for improving outcomes going forward.

The OEAP is also responsible for producing National Guidance for the management of outdoor learning, offsite visits and learning outside the classroom. National Guidance is continually updated to reflect the developing understanding of good practice.

The hiatus brought on by Covid19 provides schools with the chance to use this period to build confidence and embed a culture of learning outside the classroom. By doing this, schools will help realise the immense benefits for pupils and schools.

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