Where should our future classrooms be?
A collaborative blog with Rachel Cowper of Thrive Outdoors and Central Scotland Green Network Trust’s Deryck Irving presenting the case for moving classroom teaching outside post-COVID-19.
The response to the current pandemic has meant the introduction of new behaviours to many aspects of our day-to-day lives. The process of easing lockdown will require changed behaviours for some time to come, as well as new approaches to the places, spaces, and buildings that we live and work in.
While it is likely that some of these new behaviours will be temporary, it may actually be sensible to retain some of them in the longer term – not just to control risk, but because they are actively good for us. Accommodating this may mean we need to take steps to improve and adapt our towns and cities, our streets, our workplaces, and our public buildings.
The value we place on being outdoors has been highlighted by lockdown, and by people’s response to its easing. The health and wellbeing benefits of greenspaces are significant and well documented. Being in, or even just being able to see natural spaces has a significant positive impact on mood. Greenspaces are also among our favourite places to take physical exercise.
Research indicates that virus transmission risk is reduced outdoors, and under current circumstances, these spaces offer more opportunity to socially distance. Outdoor spaces have always been places for communities to come together, and in the short to medium term, they will continue to be the only spaces that people can safely meet. So, what might the next steps be?
Phase 1 of the Scottish Government’s lockdown easing measures included the re-opening of childminders and fully outdoor nurseries. This is driven by evidence that transmission risk for COVID-19 is lower out of doors, and findings on outdoor settings indicating their positive impact on many aspects of learning such as decision making, problem solving and interpersonal skills. Furthermore, being outdoors is key to children’s development, improving physical, mental, and emotional health, and helping to build personal resilience, self-esteem, and confidence. It is also cost-effective in meeting the increased need for space.
According to national guidance on how to establish and deliver high quality childcare outside, ‘an outdoor setting does not need a fully functioning building to deliver high quality, flexible early learning and childcare. And importantly, it is fun and should be an everyday part of children’s play-based learning!’
This notion leads directly to the question of whether this model is something that could be replicated in Primary or Secondary education. In other words, could we have outdoor schools? The answer should be emphatically yes, since our curriculum in Scotland, particularly at Primary level, can be delivered outside. Moreover, by moving education outdoors, we can provide additional benefits to childhood health and wellbeing, as well as ease the pressure on indoor settings.
Looking back to a pre-pandemic world for a moment, it’s useful to think about where outdoor learning has typically taken place. Some of it has occurred on playgrounds, astroturf pitches and staff car parks within school or nursery grounds – although much of our educational outdoor estate can be relatively sterile and offer little in the way of stimulation. Other nurseries and schools might have made use of local greenspaces, but these can also be less than ideal.
Others still have created their own spaces from underused or unused land. Consider Baltic Street Adventure Playground, created on a derelict site in Dalmarnock as a temporary response to the lack of play space and out of school provision for children and families in the east end of Glasgow. The site has become a permanent, supervised adventure playground for children aged 6 to 12, and a haven for play, adventure and learning in the community.
The way forward
While Baltic Street offers a wonderful example, there are currently only 31 registered fully outdoor nurseries in Scotland. There are more in the pipeline, but it is important to note that this is still a fledging industry here. As a comparison, in Scandinavia, outdoor nurseries and classrooms are so commonplace that they are not separately identified in the registers of education provision.
We believe that any solution for educating in the early and school years must include increased access to, and use of, outdoor spaces for learning.
In order to do this, there are a few steps that can be considered. Some or all of them will help achieve this aim, and support children’s health, wellbeing, attainment, and connectedness to their communities.
- Improve school grounds as learning spaces. It’s time to think outside the box and use recycled and loose parts materials to aid learning and encourage greater biodiversity in school grounds. Consider all external space as an opportunity – a staff car park may be the perfect place for chalk drawing and maths lessons.
- Look outside your school grounds. What local spaces exist in your community? Could you use local parks and greenspaces or other public places close to the school? Consider how you could improve greenspaces as learning spaces, including providing safe access from local schools. Does the way parks and greenspaces are managed need to change?
- Create new greenspaces as learning spaces. Not every community or every school has access to greenspaces which could be used for outdoor learning. Recent research by Fields in Trust suggests that almost 320,000 people in Scotland do not have a greenspace within a 10-minute walk of their homes. The Scottish Government uses greenspace within a 5-minute walk as its measure of access so there are likely to be many more people affected.
- Be innovative. Look for opportunities to transform under and unused spaces such as vacant and derelict land into new greenspaces. Analysis carried out by the Central Scotland Green Network Trust identified 86 vacant and derelict land sites with the potential to provide new greenspaces in areas where access is poor. Since this only covers land on the official vacant and derelict land register in the most disadvantaged communities in Central Scotland, it is likely there are further opportunities on other unused land.
There is a pressing need to focus on making best use of what we’ve got while ensuring that what is there in the future is better. This will involve our communities having better access to local greenspaces, with outdoor learning fully integrated into the curriculum.
Not only will this make us more ready for future public health challenges, it will also create better, healthier places for us all to live and work, increasing our contact with nature and reducing the negative impacts of vacant and derelict land on communities across urban Scotland.
We want to help more children, more schools, and more communities take the opportunity to use their local green and natural spaces. If you’re considering how you might achieve this for your setting or community, please get in touch and speak to us.
Rachel Cowper is Inspiring Scotland Programme Manager for Thrive Outdoors
Deryck Irving is Director of Strategy and Development, Central Scotland Green Network Trust