As the cold, autumnal air turned cheeks and noses red at a Sheffield primary school this week, some people might have questioned why lessons were being held outdoors.
There was certainly evidence of a runny nose or two. Hats and gloves were an essential requirement. And the teachers relished getting their freezing mitts on warm cup of coffee at break.
But one thing shone, even if the sun did not. And that was the smiles on the faces of these Year 2 children. They were outdoors, they were tackling engaging activities. And they were loving it.
The school in question was holding a Forest School session. No, a Forest School isn’t necessarily a school in the middle of a forest. It doesn’t have to be anywhere near one.
Any school can become a “Forest School” by getting staff trained in methods of outdoor learning that embrace the whole curriculum and provide a platform to move forward teaching in a stimulating fashion.
Schools give a vastly different emphasis to outdoor learning. Some schools don’t really engage with it at all, while some try to do as much as they can with the resources they have.
Others, however, have thrown their heart and soul into it, providing six or seven full days of outdoor learning.
English and maths lessons are built into this outdoor study, along with science and humanities topics. The ways the curriculum is integrated with the outdoors is innovative in many cases.
With Sheffield marketing itself as the outdoor city, it was delightful to be a part of such a fun and challenging day out of the classroom. In this case the children used the school grounds to learn about trees and nature, but other days might include a trip to the countryside or maybe a local wood.
The key thing is to get outdoors. Our city and its environs are on the holiday map for people wanting to enjoy hiking and climbing and so it’s important we share our greatest asset with young people. Investing time to allow them to enjoy nature and learn about its value is not only going to increase happiness in schools but it could also have a longer-term impact on safeguarding our city’s unique selling point and promoting Sheffield as the best outdoors destination.
How encouraging to discover Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trusts are aiming to create a woodland shelter at Greno Woods that may be used as an outdoor learning environment.
A range of activities are already available there to engage children at South Yorkshire schools and plans are in place to develop that provision even further.
Schools on the edge of the city have countryside they can access easily and others with large playing grounds are also at an advantage. But there are many inner-city schools in Sheffield and some do not have any natural grass. For these schools, it is vital that provision is made that allows classes to get to an established location for an organised day’s learning.
We should be thankful for work done in this area by the council, Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and others.
Sadly, the emphasis given to outdoor learning seems to tail off the older children get.
Parents often send their children into Year 1 and see nature exploration as a key part of the curriculum. Moving into Key Stage 2, the opportunities tend to be cut as SATs become the focus.
At secondary schools, few have heard of Forest School. Shorter lessons and timetabling pressures mean there is rarely the chance to take children away from the confines of the classroom.
The luxury of time in the countryside is something that schools might limit to a residential in Year 8 and consider the box ticked.
But headteachers have a valuable – and free – resource that this city offers. It’s called the surrounding countryside. It’s the greenbelt. It’s the Peak District National Park.
It’s something that can boost the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of our young people. It’s a teaching tool that should be used more often throughout a child’s journey along the school system.