The policy context for outdoor learning

Policy framework around outdoor learning in natural environments; government initiatives; and the increasing body of evidence on how outdoor learning improves outcomes.

Outdoor learning is a broad term that includes outdoor play in the early years, school grounds projects, environmental education, recreational and adventure activities, personal and social development programmes, team building expeditions and adventure therapy.

Roger Greenaway, author of research on what constitutes outdoor learning, outlines the common themes that apply across its various forms. These include:

  • Direct experience - it provides a dramatic contrast to the indoor classroom, with the outdoor experience making it more impactful, stimulating and motivating
  • Active learning - participants learn through encounter and discovery, learning the skills of enquiry, experiment, feedback, reflection and co-operation
  • Consequences of actions - it can bring school subjects alive by enabling pupils to experiment and so fulfilling the national curriculum requirement to challenge, take responsibility, manage risk and cope with adversity
  • Broadening horizons - participants discover potential, abilities and interests that surprise themselves, with the outdoor environment inspiring and energising
  • Increased integration - outdoor learning is becoming increasingly integrated into mainstream settings, with elements of it incorporated into the education curriculum and recognition of the need for children to connect with the natural environment.

The depth of understanding and knowledge about the education and health benefits for children of outdoor learning is growing, driven in part by concerns over falling engagement with the natural environment for a whole generation of young people and the impact that this is having on reduced levels of physical and mental wellbeing. Greenaway's study was funded by the Institute for Outdoor Learning, which since 2001 has shared evidence on what works, offered good practice advice and helped train educators.

A Natural England study in 2009 found that less than 10 per cent of children play in natural places such as woodlands, countryside and heaths compared with 40 per cent of children in the 1980s. This year, research from the Dirt Is Good campaign found that three-quarters of children spend less time outside than prison inmates.

The reasons for the decline are multiple and complex - they include an increasingly urban population, heightened concern about the perceived risks posed to children from traffic and strangers, the growth in screen-based entertainment, and sales of school playing fields to name but a few.

The government recognises the problem, with a number of Whitehall departments doing work - funding research, developing guidance and testing new interventions - aimed at improving children's access to outdoor activities and green spaces. In March 2016, Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss pledged that from 2017/18, all school children will be able to visit a national park to increase the numbers experiencing outdoor learning. Under the plan, national park authorities will engage more than 60,000 young people a year through school visits.

The Department for Education's character and resilience agenda has emphasised the role outdoor learning can play in helping young people develop the skills and traits needed to overcome life's challenges and achieve in education and beyond. The recent white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere reinforces this and includes other measures, such as increased freedoms for schools, that could help primaries and secondaries to incorporate outdoor learning more into how pupils learn (see below).

In addition, the Conservative government's 2015 election manifesto included ambitious plans for every 15- to 17-year-old to have the opportunity to take part in the National Citizen Services (NCS) by 2020. A key element of the flagship social action programme - backed by the Cabinet Office - is a week-long outdoor learning residential trip. The numbers participating are increasing quickly with encouraging results for the long-term benefits that it brings (see NCS practice example).

Another initiative receiving government backing is Play Streets, in which the Department for Transport and Department for Communities and Local Government are working together to make it easier for councils to allow residents to regularly close streets to traffic and open them up for children to play. Raising the amount of time children spend exercising and increasing school sports funding - after major cuts under the coalition government - are also key targets for the Department for Health. The childhood obesity strategy is also expected to pull together a range of initiatives to encourage children's participation in outdoor activities, although the six-month delay in its publication has seen ministers and the department criticised.

However, campaigners argue these initiatives are largely piecemeal when what is required is a government-wide strategy for outdoor learning and play. Cath Prisk, former director of Play England and global partnerships manager for Project Dirt, says this void is a particular problem for encouraging participation from the eight- to 13 age group.

"With increasing pressures on childhood, children today are too often overprotected, overscheduled and overly attached to screens. And yet what all parents and teachers want is for children to grow up happy and to develop the skills they need for the future - that's why it is more crucial than ever before to help get children outdoors," Prisk says.

Despite the lack of an overarching government strategy, public bodies, environmental charities and sector-led organisations are developing new ways of engaging children of all ages with the outdoor world and, in so doing, broadening and deepening their education and skills.

Early years play

The Early Years Foundation Stage requires childcare settings to provide access to an outdoor play area or, if that is not possible, ensure outdoor activities are planned and occurring on a daily basis. A survey of 400 providers found outdoor space had in the majority of settings become bigger and improved in quality, with 96 per cent saying outdoor play was "very important".

However, the Early Childhood Forum's survey of outdoor learning provision for under-fives found evidence of lack of outdoor space (18 per cent), negative parental attitudes (26 per cent), insufficient staff training (31 per cent) and inadequate resources (31 per cent) among providers (see research evidence).

A movement that is growing in popularity is that of Forest Schools. These schools and nurseries provide an educational approach to outdoor play and learning in a woodland environment. Their ethos is that the closer children are to nature, the happier they will be and the more they will achieve. Findings from a recent Ofsted inspection of the Woodland Nursery, a Forest School in London, praised the school readiness of the children who attended (see practice example).  

School-based approaches

In February, public body Natural England, published the findings from its two-year pilot to develop a national indicator for measuring children's access to the natural environment. It built on measures in the 2011 Natural Environment white paper, which set out the ambition for "every child to be able to experience and learn in the natural environment". The pilot found that over a 12-month period, 88 per cent of children visited the natural environment - the most popular venues being parks, playgrounds and playing fields - mainly with their parents. Children from more affluent families visited the natural environment more than those from disadvantaged backgrounds (see graphic).


Natural England concluded that schools could become an important gateway to outdoor learning and has been developing ways to support schools in disadvantaged areas to improve access to outdoor education. The full findings from the study are to be published shortly, but Natural England hopes the model, piloted in the South West, will be expanded across the country.

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation-funded Learning Away report looked at how schools can use residential experiences as an integral part of the curriculum. A total of 60 schools were studied with experiences including camping, outdoor adventures and urban/rural school exchanges. Outcomes measured included the impact participation had on individual attainment and aspiration, community cohesion and cultural diversity.

Three-quarters of staff surveyed said taking part in a residential had improved students' resilience, confidence and wellbeing, while 23 per cent of parents said their child's school attendance had improved. Pupils who participated also achieved significantly better GCSE grades than their peers.

In addition, outdoor learning experiences helped pupils confront challenges. Two-thirds of year 6 pupils said the experience had made them more confident about meeting new people, with 53 per cent saying they were now excited about the transition to secondary school (see Outward Bound Trust practice example). Teachers said the residential was "worth half a term" in the progress pupils made.

Initiatives such as Empty Classroom Day are taking the outdoor learning message global by creating an event - on 17 June - to celebrate and promote play outside of the classroom. It includes lesson plans and guidance written by experts on how teachers can make the most of outdoor education opportunities.

Youth groups

With much political and state-funded capital being pumped into the National Citizen Service (NCS), the social action programme has become a key outdoor learning experience for many adolescents. In addition, a number of youth organisations operate their own outdoor learning centres, which are used by groups in their network or by schools, local authorities and youth groups from other areas.

YMCA's National Centre in Lakeside is one of the largest outdoor activity facilities in the country. It works with schools, the NCS and youth organisations such as Prince's Trust to deliver experiential learning.

Hindleap Warren Outdoor Centre in East Sussex run by UK Youth provides residential and day courses for children and young ?people from schools, youth groups and organisations that work with young people with additional needs.

PGL also runs a range of residential outdoor learning experiences for uniformed youth groups including the Scouts, Girl Guides, Cubs and Brownies.

However, cuts to local authority youth services has seen the amount of provision offered and commissioned by councils reduce. A recent survey by the English Outdoor Council revealed that out of 152 local authority-run outdoor centres, 26 per cent faced closure, while 39 per cent were at risk.

Social pedagogy

The contribution that outdoor learning can play in tackling social pedagogical issues is also increasingly being recognised. Outdoor experiences can help engage hard-to-reach groups and help them achieve goals and develop skills that they would struggle to do in a formal education setting. This can also offer a springboard for helping young people who have struggled at school to re-engage with education (see Jamie's Farm practice example).

A major study published last November by the University of Derby for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, found children who were more connected to nature had significantly higher attainment in English, life satisfaction, health outcomes and pro-environmental behaviours.

Meanwhile, other research has looked at the benefits of outdoor learning for particularly vulnerable groups, such as looked-after children, young offenders and those with disabilities.

A study published in February into a small group of young carers who took part in the Good from Wood project run by social enterprise Nature Workshops identified a range of benefits.

It states: "The young carers… enjoyed the freedom engendered by being outdoors and being able to undertake physical activities in the woods. They developed friendships and reported feeling happier, and were better able to relate to their peers. Their teachers and parents noted that they were more settled and that their behaviour had improved.

"It provided a break from their caring responsibilities. It literally gave them a chance to be carefree; a chance to learn about the woods and themselves, to get muddy and to gain confidence."

Education white paper offers chances to boost outdoor learning

By Victoria Wilcher, development manager, Council for Learning Outside the Classroom

The education white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, presents an opportunity to think about the value and purpose of education, and what we want children to gain from their learning.

Research shows that well-planned outdoor learning supports pupils' academic and personal development. Outdoor learning enables pupils to engage with the world around them, explore nature, encounter people of different cultures and backgrounds, and challenge their expectations. These benefits fit well with the five guiding principles of the white paper: children and young people first; high expectations for every child; prioritising outcomes, not methods; supporting autonomy; and being responsive to need and performance.

The white paper gives schools an opportunity to think about how outdoor learning contributes to pupil development, and where learning outside the classroom fits with the rest of the school curriculum. Key areas of the white paper that are of particular relevance for outdoor learning are outlined here.

The focus on outcomes, rather than methods, and supported autonomy means that schools will be freer to choose the method of curriculum delivery which best suits their pupils. The white paper explicitly states that: "Academy status includes freedom over the curriculum as long as a ‘broad and balanced' curriculum is taught".

With greater autonomy, schools have the opportunity to develop more innovative methods of curriculum delivery, such as Learning Outside the Classroom, in the knowledge that their methods are supported by research and will produce better outcomes for their pupils. If a school or multi-academy chain believes in the value of outdoor learning, they can choose to deliver their whole curriculum outside the classroom.

The white paper states that "a 21st century education should prepare children for adult life by instilling the character traits and fundamental British values that will help them succeed". There is a wealth of evidence about the benefits of outdoor learning for developing pupils' resilience, self-confidence, communication skills, creativity and the skills of inquiry and problem solving. Exposing pupils to novel "real world" learning experiences on an educational visit can have much more impact on developing pupils' self-confidence and social skills than a day in the classroom.

Outdoor learning can help to promote British values by helping young people to engage directly with the world beyond the classroom walls. Ofsted guidance on the promotion of British values states that social, moral, spiritual and cultural activities should "enable students to develop their self-knowledge, self-esteem and self-confidence". These attributes are all key benefits of outdoor learning.

The white paper states that every child should be able to access the National Citizen Service (NCS), and funding will be increased to support this. As part of the NCS programme, young people take part in adventurous activities, and have a residential experience, which are aspects of outdoor learning. The government's commitment to NCS indicates that it recognises the benefits of outdoor learning for pupil development.

There are many other ways in which outdoor learning can support the aims of Educational Excellence Everywhere. For information and guidance on developing high-quality learning outside the classroom, visit

Outdoor learning improves outcomes for our children

By Jim Burt, principal adviser, Natural England

A substantial body of evidence shows that learning outdoors in natural environments, in various contexts from formal to informal, is associated with a diverse range of positive outcomes for learners of all ages - including personal, social, educational, developmental and health outcomes, for example:

  • Improved academic motivation and performance especially in reading, mathematics, science and social studies
  • Better motor skills and increased levels of physical activity
  • Improvement in school attendance rates, positive play behaviours and a range of other developmental outcomes
  • Improved mental health, particularly for children suffering mental distress, low self-perceived social and personal skills, and children on the autistic spectrum
  • A greater sense of community within and beyond the school.

Having greater amounts of natural space in or around living or learning environments is associated with higher levels of physical activity, better emotional, behavioural and cognitive outcomes, and with children developing a greater sense of connectedness to nature.

But there is still a need to better understand what works, when and for whom. For example, the relative importance of the different types of activities - although adventure learning appears to be of particular benefit, with one review concluding that pupils made three months' progress on their peers. We also do not fully understand the relative importance of different types of natural environments.

A survey by Natural England found evidence of inequalities, with children from poorer families less likely to visit the natural environment with their school or in their leisure time. It also found that local green space was important to children from all backgrounds. The Natural Connections project has been evaluating ways to develop local support for schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

Natural England's ongoing evidence work with partners includes developing a demonstration to integrate and improve health, learning and leisure service provision around local urban green space in East London and the development of a national indicator for children's connection to nature.  

For more information, contact Jim Burt at

CYP Now Digital membership

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice
  • Legal updates
  • Local area spotlights

From £170 /year


CYP Now Magazine

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice and interviews
  • Legal updates

From £136 /year