Special Report: Outdoor Learning - Research evidence

These summaries of key research on outdoor learning have been produced with the help of Lucy Maynard, head of research at Brathay Trust; Dr Chris Loynes, reader in outdoor studies at University of Cumbria; and Jim Burt, outdoor learning programme manager at Natural England.

Study 1
The Existing Evidence-Base About the Effectiveness of Outdoor Learning

Caroline Fiennes, Elizabeth Oliver, Kelly Dickson, Diego Escobar, Amy Romans, Sandy Oliver (2015)

This research commissioned by the Institute for Outdoor Learning (IOL) and Blagrave Trust, aimed to understand the effectiveness of the various types of outdoor learning programmes. The research aimed to:

  • Categorise the various outdoor learning activities being run in the UK, in order to provide a coherent sense of the sector as a whole;
  • Identify the various outcomes that organisations running outdoor learning activities are measuring, i.e. identify the outcomes that providers seem to be seeking to achieve; and
  • Assess the designs of individual evaluations (while aware that study designs vary in their openness to bias and hence inaccuracy) and the standard of evidence generally available for different types of outdoor learning.

Measuring impact
A systematic review of the existing literature about outdoor learning was carried out by searching the academic literature and inviting submissions of research from outdoor learning organisations. The review was guided by a steering group with members drawn from provider and research organisations.

Comparison of reports of UK studies in terms of attributes was carried out using a scale developed by Project Oracle, which looks at the extent of plans for an intervention and the evidence for it.

Key findings

Key findings were split into four main themes:

The sector as a whole

There is no comprehensive or regular (repeated) survey of the scale of outdoor learning in the UK. There are some studies of specific outdoor learning activities – by type of activity or part of the UK. In these, some authors express concern about barriers to delivering outdoor learning and a reduction in outdoor learning.

The current research base

Crowdsourcing UK research revealed an enthusiasm for research and sharing of knowledge among people who deliver outdoor learning activities. However, some of the material submitted was data or reflections that included named individuals, rather than anonymised research reports. This raised issues around practitioners’ understanding of research ethics.

There is a growing body of individual studies, and 15 systematic reviews, providing evidence of the effects of outdoor learning. However, the set is somewhat confusing because many of them overlap in terms of the primary studies they include. Moreover, some systematic reviews include findings from other systematic reviews, or are an update of an earlier review. This overlap therefore repeatedly reports the same evidence without necessarily strengthening it.

In total, 58 primary UK studies were found. Three features of them were striking:

  • They are spread thinly across many populations (types and age groups), interventions, settings and outcomes, such that few topics have been researched extensively.
  • The activities and participants on which studies focus may not be where the sector would choose that research to focus. For example, the most common study topics are: adventure or residential activity; 11- to 14-year-olds; and the general population.
  • There was little link between the outcomes measured by the studies and the agenda of “customers” and funders. The outcomes measured are mainly around “character development-type” outcomes (communication skills, teamwork, self-confidence). Very few studies addressed interventions with strong links to core curriculum subjects.

Outcomes assessed
The evidence, both in the UK and internationally, and in both primary studies and systematic reviews, is varied in terms of the populations who are offered outdoor learning, the type of outdoor learning and the outcomes assessed. Generally, there is considerable consensus in the general aims of interventions, but little consensus on the outcomes for assessing their effects.

The designs of individual evaluations
Many UK studies did not reach Level One of the Project Oracle scale, normally because they did not cite or appear to use a theory of change (also known as a logic model, it includes: an articulation of the inputs, the intended outcomes, how the inputs are meant to produce those outcomes, and assumptions about context, participants or other conditions). Clear theories of change demonstrate that the practitioners understand their intervention and that they can be applied more widely.

No UK study featured the more demanding attributes of Levels Four or Five, around the intervention having been replicated in several places.

Implications for practice
Almost all outdoor learning interventions have a positive effect. This effect attenuates over time: the effect as measured immediately after the intervention is stronger than in follow-up measures after a few months. This is common for social interventions.

The systematic reviews found that overnight and multi-day activities had a stronger effect than shorter interventions. While this is perhaps unsurprising, it does pose a challenge for funders since the higher associated costs forces a trade-off with the number of participants.

Outdoor learning organisations should refer to systematic reviews of research about outdoor learning when planning their programmes. Careful reading is required to firstly check the rigour of each review and the studies they include; and secondly, check the precise types of programmes, populations and outcomes they studied. Because the existing research is spread quite thin, few questions about effectiveness are yet answered reliably. It therefore recommends that the outdoor learning sector collectively prioritise the various unanswered questions in order to focus its research resources. It should:

  • Collate various data sources on the types and volume of activity to give the current picture, and create a system to regularly capture data
  • Improve practitioners’ theories of change, enabling practitioners to both create and to use them
  • Convene practitioners, researchers and others to prioritise research topics
  • Manage the resulting sector-wide research agenda, through relationships with funders, and possibly by creating partnerships between practitioners and researchers
  • Ensure that both interventions and research are described clearly, fully and publicly.

Study 2
Provision for Learning Outdoors for Under-5s: State of the Nations survey

Annie Davy, Learning Through Landscapes and the Early Childhood Forum (2015)

Outdoor play is widely understood to be a vital element in child-led activities that provoke critical learning and development especially in early years education. The study states: “We have partaken in a huge amount of research. This has proved beyond any doubt the massive impact that the outdoors can have on all areas of a child’s development. It is also a vital contribution towards staff wellbeing”. As a result, the statutory Early Years Foundation Stage requires that childcare providers “must provide access to an outdoor play area or, if that is not possible, ensure that outdoor activities are planned and taken on a daily basis”.

Government-funded early years education and childcare is offered through a range of schools and settings, voluntary groups and private provision. There is little guidance and no statutory requirement for the minimum outdoor space per child. In addition, policy provides little guidance concerning the quality of the outdoor space or the experiences that promote quality learning and development.

In total, 97 per cent of 325 respondents have a dedicated outdoor space. For nearly 40 per cent, this space has increased in the last 10 years and 80 per cent thought the space had improved. In total, 96 per cent felt outdoor play to be very important. However, 54 per cent had no training in working with children outdoors and while 41 per cent had, this was often a day with a Forest Schools provider.

Concerns about outdoor spaces included using shared space, having to limit the number of children out at any one time due to growth in demand and a lack of interest or diversity in the space such as trees and grass. As one stated: “It’s very small and has no grass at all.”

Barriers to outdoor play included health and safety concerns (33 per cent), inadequate staffing levels (31 per cent), and negative parental attitudes – “Parents often complain their children get ‘dirty’ if they go outside” – (26 per cent), lack of training (31 per cent), poor weather – “Children are not coming adequately dressed, or it is too cold/wet outside for their clothing” (26 per cent); and education/care policies that fail to emphasise the outdoors (26 per cent).

When asked what their own recommendations would be, respondents listed more varied training, a re-designed space, better outdoor resources, good information for parents about the value of outdoor play whatever the weather and more experienced staff.

As one said: “Change society’s attitude to what a child’s play space should look like. Any group hiring premises that are used by other groups suffer huge problems when trying to return (the) environment to look like municipal gardens after a morning of mud kitchens and Forest School activity.”

Implications for practice
The survey found a wide variation in what is offered to young children in terms of the entitlement to daily outdoor experience under the EYFS, with many settings struggling with inadequate or insufficient space to provide high-quality outdoor learning. Despite a long tradition of outdoor play in early years provision in the UK, parental and staff attitudes seem to be major barriers, particularly in relation to the weather. The report calls for more research to develop examples of quality practice, more evidenced-based policy calling for quality outdoor play, more funded training for staff and help with information for parents.

This survey shows that the importance of outdoor space as a key learning and development resource (not simply recreation) is not fully understood by some planners and developers of childcare businesses.

Study 3

Natural Connections

Caroline Emmerson and Jenny Hanwell, Natural England (2016)

Natural Connections, a four-year demonstration project funded by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Natural England and Historic England and delivered by Plymouth University, was developed in response to research and insight studies into the barriers and benefits of outdoor learning in schools. The project, which came to an end in April, has been testing and evaluating new ways of providing local, independent support to schools and teachers to stimulate both the demand from schools for cross-curricular outdoor learning and the supply of training and support networks to build teacher confidence and skills.

Natural Connections aimed to increase the number of schoolchildren, particularly from disadvantaged communities, able to experience the full range of benefits that come from learning in local natural environments, by reducing the barriers teachers face when wanting to take lessons outside. The Project, which worked with 125 schools, 40,000 pupils and 2,000 teachers across the South West, will release the full findings in July 2016, including a best practice guide for practitioners.

A school-led model
Schools are gateways to enable all children to have opportunities to enjoy and learn in their local outdoors, yet in 2013-15 only eight per cent of children aged 6 to 15 in England got out of classrooms into green spaces each month.

The Natural Connections project was designed around hubs, with “hub leaders” having educational and outdoor learning expertise creating “clusters” of schools, which supported each other in overcoming challenges to learning in natural environments, sharing ideas and inspiring experiences with each other. The project focused on areas of deprivation in Plymouth, Torbay, Bristol and areas within Cornwall and Somerset, working in both urban and rural schools with varying school grounds and levels of local green space.

The project was school-led, and worked with teachers and local service providers to embed outdoor learning into everyday school activity, in a sustainable way that connects the natural environment with the priorities of the school and the curriculum. The project collected data from participants to test the project aims, capture evidence of impact and to make recommendations to inform future practice. The findings show benefits for teachers, pupils and schools as a whole.

Benefits for teachers
At a time when the teaching profession is under pressure and teachers report increased levels of stress and reduced job satisfaction, the project shows that taking lessons outside can both empower and motivate teachers. When 87 schools responded to the end of project survey, they all reported that outdoor learning had positive impacts on teachers, with 90 per cent specifically saying it improved their teaching practice (see graphic). The project increased teacher confidence in taking learning outside by offering training and peer-to-peer support networks, and embedding outdoor learning into school development plans, giving teachers “permission” to use their school grounds and local spaces as outdoor classrooms. This opened up a whole new learning resource right on their doorstep that is often a better place for curriculum delivery and can help improve the school’s learning outcomes.

One school principal said: “Working outdoors creates engagement and… logically, greater interest leads to greater focus and greater participation and as a result greater attainment.”

A teacher added: “The spaces [for outdoor learning] allow stress/anxieties to be more manageable for both staff and children.”

These quotes from those involved in the project provide clear illustrations of the positive role that outdoor learning can play in managing the pressures of daily life in schools.

Through smart project models like this, outdoor experiences don’t have to be an extra-curricular add-on or something that is nice to do when the teachers have time. Keeping things local reduces paperwork, costs and time, enabling schools to use the outdoors more frequently. Throughout the project, staff in schools consistently reported that outdoor learning was useful for curriculum delivery, and it was regularly used for teaching across the whole curriculum in both primary and secondary schools, including the core subjects of English, maths and science.

Benefits for children
The project provides evidence, for the first time on this scale, that increased learning in local natural environments has multiple benefits for children in school – 92 per cent of teachers reported that being outdoors engages pupils with learning. In turn this results in an increase in pupil confidence to apply that learning, leading to increased success and attainment. This sort of impact is often a difficult thing for teachers to attribute to any one teaching intervention, yet a significant number of schools surveyed were able to confidently say that outdoor learning had a positive impact on attainment. Pupils’ health and wellbeing was also noticeably improved, along with their social skills, and with the vast majority of teachers reporting that it has a positive impact on pupil behaviour there is an additional incentive for teachers who are new to taking lessons outside.

Project legacy
The Project partners’ ambition is to now see this model, which has been successfully delivered in the South West, expanded across England so children in every school have the opportunity to benefit from learning in natural environments. The focus is now on securing the resourcing and building the partnerships to achieve this ambition.

Implications for practice
The publication of the best practice guide for practitioners to be released in July will use the findings and learning from Natural Connections to provide practitioners with the tools they need to implement cross-curricular outdoor learning in their own settings. It will give organisations practical advice and information on how best to support schools with outdoor learning. Key themes include making support services sustainable – covering issues such as evidencing impact, changing teaching practice and culture, and how to incorporate outdoor spaces for learning across the curriculum. It will also provide teachers with practical steps and advice on the delivery of cross-curricular outdoor learning aligned to their school priorities and how to establish support networks.


Study 4

Evaluation of Learning Away

Sally Kendall and John Rodger for Paul Hamlyn Foundation (2015)

Learning Away was an initiative funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) from 2008 to 2015. It aimed to support schools across the UK in significantly enhancing young people’s learning, achievement and wellbeing by using innovative residential experiences as an integral part of the curriculum.

A total of 60 schools (primary, secondary and special) were involved in developing new models of residential experiences that were teacher and student designed and led; including a wide range of activities and venues. Residential experiences included camping (on school sites, locally or further afield), co-constructed partnerships with outdoor providers, and school exchanges in urban and rural environments.

Learning Away aimed to encourage schools to change their residential provision and ensure that they were working towards a number of guiding principles for developing an integrated approach to high-quality residential learning.

An independent consultancy evaluated the effectiveness of the initiative, with two aims:

  • To test and evidence four key propositions focused on the belief that high-quality residential learning:
  1. Has a strong, positive impact on academic achievement and provides a wide range of student-level outcomes;
  2. Can transform the learning experience of students;
  3. Can help to transform schools;  
  4. Does not need to be expensive.
  • To generate new insights and understanding about how and why residential learning can and does achieve these outcomes.

How it measured impact
The evaluation took a mixed methods approach, which included surveying students and staff pre- and post-residential to capture views on the impact of the programme, and asking parents their views about their child post residential. Focus groups were also carried out.

Attainment, behaviour and attendance data was collected where delivery of the programme was focused on improving outcomes in these areas.

Key findings
Findings were found in three key areas: Impact; how residentials contribute to impact and developing a Learning Away community; and the quality principles and elements of a “brilliant residential”.

Improvements attributed to the project were found in:

  • Relationships – peers, staff and students.
  • Resilience, self-confidence and wellbeing – increases in confidence, within students themselves, in their learning, and in their relationships with others.
  • Engagement with learning – through a more relaxed learning environment, the availability of one-to-one support and small group work, practical and experiential learning opportunities, as well as the chance to experience success.
  • Progress in learning – for example, moving from lower to higher rated qualifications; improving the confidence of lower attaining students resulting in improved attainment back in school; students having a better awareness of their strengths and weaknesses; and knowing what they needed to do to improve their attainment.
  • Learning skills – independent learning; deeper understanding of a subject; study and research skills; creativity; vocabulary and listening.
  • Cohesion – the sense of community developed on the residentials and the significance of the experiences helped boost cohesion, interpersonal relationships and a sense of belonging.
  • Leadership, co-design and facilitation – responsibility to lead activities; providing a role model for other students; improved organisational and presentation skills; improved independence and maturity; and an enhanced learning experience.
  • Transition – facilitation of students’ transition experiences (mainly between primary and secondary school, but also across year groups and key stages).
  • Pedagogical skills – staff identified that residential experiences provided opportunities for them to widen and develop pedagogical skills.

Implications for practice
A range of benefits were found for schools, providers, policymakers and researchers:

Residentials work best when schools plan their programmes to be needs-led. They are also more effective when there is active teacher and student involvement in their planning, delivery and evaluation. The more buy-in from participants at the planning stage, the greater the learning on the residential, and support from head teachers is critical for successfully embedding learning. Residentials do not need to be expensive and lower-cost models can provide as good, or sometimes better, outcomes. Additionally, pupil premium funding can be used to help raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.

Residentials can provide significant opportunities for teachers to trial, develop and practise different teaching styles, approaches and pedagogies and to recognise their effectiveness. Benefits are found when learning is embedded and reinforced on the return to school.

Providers need to do more to evaluate the impact of their residential programmes and activities, to involve schools in the evaluation process and to share their data/evidence with schools. They should highlight beneficial impacts such as improved GCSE attainment, student leadership, and Key Stage 2 to 3 transition.

There is a need to publicise the benefits of residential programmes to a wider audience, through, for example, customised promotional packs. School engagement could be supported through schools’ funding guide, highlighting low cost sustainable models of residential delivery.

There needs to be greater promotion of the impact of residential learning on how the curriculum is delivered back in school and helping shape a more meaningful curriculum.

The impact of residential experiences on students’ resilience, confidence and wellbeing, clearly fits well with the current focus on supporting schools to develop “character” and resilience in students in order to prepare them better for adult life.

A key priority for future research is to generate greater quantitative data relating residentials to attainment. It would be valuable for future research to explore further the longer-term impacts of residential experiences; effective strategies for reinforcing and embedding learning; the impact on students’ health and emotional wellbeing; and the benefits of residential experiences in the non-formal youth sector.

Further reading

Learning in the Natural Environment: Review of Social and Economic Benefits and Barriers, Dillon, J. and I. Dickie, Natural England Commissioned Reports, 2012

Engaging Children on the Autistic Spectrum with the Natural Environment: Teacher Insight Study and Evidence Review, Blakesley, D., M. Rickinson, and J. Dillon, 2013

Encouraging Play in the Natural Environment: A Child-Focused Case Study of Forest School, Ridgers, N.D., Knowles Z.R, and Sayers J., Children’s Geographies, 2012

Learning Outdoors: the Forest School Approach, O’Brien, L., Education, 2009

Improving School Attendance: Can Participation in Outdoor Learning Influence Attendance for Young People With Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties? Price, A., Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 2015

Perceived Restorativeness Of Children’s School Playground Environments: Nature, Playground Features And Play Period Experiences, Bagot, K.L., F.C.L. Allen, and S. Toukhsati, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2015

Children In Schoolyards: Tracking Movement Patterns And Physical Activity In Schoolyards Using Global Positioning System And Heart Rate Monitoring, Fjørtoft, I., B. Kristoffersen, and Sageie J., Landscape and Urban Planning, 2009

The Impact of Children’s Connection to Nature: A Report for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, University of Derby for RSPB, 2015.

Outdoor Adventure Education for Children In Scotland: Quantifying the Benefits, Scrutton, R.A., Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 2015

The Emotional Affordances of Forest Settings: An Investigation in Boys with Extreme Behavioural Problems, Roe, J. and Aspinall P., Landscape Research, 2011

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