Case Study: One Schools' Journey to Embed Outdoor Learning

Hilary Pullen is the Senior Teacher at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ Prep School in Hertfordshire. She, and her colleagues, have been on a significant journey to implement outdoor learning within all aspects of school life. From curriculum-linked lessons in the outdoors to co-curricular activities and clubs, she has an inspiring story to tell about overcoming many of the barriers teachers face and the enormous benefits for pupils and staff derived from learning beyond the classroom.

First canopy of 3 installed at Habs' Boys

The first of 3 outdoor canopy classrooms installed by SOuL at Habs Boys 

How far have Habs Boys come in the last 5 years regarding outdoor learning?

There was no outdoor learning 5 years ago.

Now it’s completely different, we’ve embedded outdoor learning and forest school learning into our curriculum across all year groups. We have introduced co-curricular clubs such as Bushcraft Club, Arbojo (team building & problem solving) and orienteering as well as regular lessons outside throughout the school year.

Camping on the school site begins in Year 3 where boys construct their own tents and spend a day and half together, the children love it. Through experiencing something new it is clear to see how much the boys grow in both their confidence and independence.

Outdoor learning is now snowballing into the Senior School. The boys have gained new skills that they didn’t have previously. There are now more field days revolving around outdoor learning and school trips are becoming more ambitious to challenge the boys further.

More outdoor learning and the introduction of the Forest Schools initiative has also helped. Forest School has given greater knowledge and understanding of the natural environment within our own school grounds and boys, as a result. have become aware of and attach real importance to this.

Confidence and training for staff is essential. CPD events and The Outdoor Learning Conference (run by SOuL) has really helped teachers with confidence whilst also providing inspiration drawn from great practice within other schools such as offsite trips and how they map outdoor learning across their whole curriculum.

What have been some of the challenges you have faced in implementing outdoor learning at the school and how have you overcome them?

Changing attitudes to outdoor learning across my peer group at school, providing confidence and inspiration to staff, campaigning for resources, creating persuasive proposals to release budgets and get financial support, leading by example to my colleagues, getting colleagues to come and watch activities and lesson plans and try them out.

The parents have been behind it from the start and I have asked parents to write in about what their boys are getting from their outdoor learning experiences. The parents want this type of provision from the school as many see it something that they don’t need to provide. Having said that, as a result of what we do, many children want to take to the outdoors or go camping with their families, and many now do.

What have been the benefits to the pupils?

At first it was the same boys who would contribute to discussions during tasks but soon other boys became more confident in that way of thinking, so they would start to share their thoughts and ideas. This has had a snowball effect in that others see that it’s alright and safe to give your ideas, sharing is a good thing.

It’s got the school really thinking about character education and what character traits we want to see at the school. By spending time outdoors we have seen changing attitudes in the boys around failure for example and that it’s ok to fail. Some of the boys just don’t give up and show tremendous resilience, which to us is a fundamental life skill. We also see more creativity and other behaviours, courage, courtesy, compassion, that I call the ‘4Cs’.

These traits challenge selfishness and the limited importance of status. It gets them thinking about others rather than always focusing on their own needs first.

What have been the benefits for staff?

It’s helped me become a better teacher. I’ve learnt to facilitate more, ask open-ended questions and relinquish the need for control or wanting to move on at my own pace. This has also made me better in the classroom and changed me as a mother. I’ve stopped simply ‘telling’ my children, but instead saying “you take responsibility for this, you go and explore and reflect on it.”

Initially when we first talked about learning outside I heard comments like “we’ve no interactive smart boards out there so it’s really hard to teach.” Or

“I can’t control all these boys outside, I’ll need more help.”

Over time we found the boys achieved much more by giving them more responsibility and sometimes standing back and letting things be revealed by themselves.

We have also found that, by giving the boys boundaries around working together outside, they respond well and create truly collaborative learning environments.

Changing mind-sets and getting staff to try it ensures that they become more confident. Also, once they see other staff giving it go outside, they feel encouraged and even compelled to do the same.

What is really important in all of this is that we as teachers role model the behaviours. For example, that it’s ok to make mistakes and not get it right first time!

It’s also helped us take on the concept of ‘global listening’; clearing your mind to simply listen to others rather than be thinking about your own response. It’s taught the boys how to demonstrate, through their body language, how to listen so, rather than just an exchange, it’s become true dialogue.

SOuL have supported Habs Boys through the provision of CPD, resources and the installation of 3 'all natural' outdoor classrooms in the pre-prep, prep and upper schools.