Trail biking in the local Pineta with Year 9
After eighteen months of restrictions, limitations and a whole host of curbs on freedoms we had previously taken for granted, many of us are spending time reflecting on and realigning our personal and professional priorities.
For the team at Southlands British International School, a key goal this year has been to take students outside as often as possible: for play, for learning, for sport and for relaxation, both as a way of helping to keep students healthy, and also to help counteract the effects of a much more restricted approach in school than in previous years, including desks set 1 m apart, no moving around class or group work. Outdoor learning was already in its infancy at the school prior to the Covid pandemic. Once we were able to get children back on campus, there was never any doubt in our minds as to the importance of weaving it within the fabric of daily learning life!
What is outdoor learning?
According to the Institute of Outdoor Learning, Outdoor learning involves the transformation of knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours through direct engagement with the outdoor environment for the personal and social benefit of individuals, families, society and the planet*.
It is through this kind of direct contact with the outdoors that children are encouraged to form new kinds of connections, both with nature, and others. I have seen for myself the seismic shift in interest and engagement which occurs when students' classes move outside. Whether it is maths or English, topic or a French lesson, there is a visible difference. The UK Education watchdog, OFSTED concluded in a 2008 report analysing the impact of outdoor learning that " When planned and implemented well, learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils' personal, social and emotional development."** This is music to every teacher and parent's ears; outdoor learning, when executed effectively boosts those core areas which are so integral to producing happy, healthy, successful students.
* https://www.outdoor-learning.org/Good-Practice/Research-Resources/About-Outdoor-Learning June 5th 2021
** https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20141107065829/http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/learning-outside-classroom June 5th 2021
Growing strawberries in the Nursery allotment
How do we do it?
At Southlands we are lucky to enjoy a great deal of open space and garden areas. This year we have installed learning gardens for all our Early Years and Primary classes with seating and shade, planters and grassed areas that can be used with versatility: whether it is a Science lesson on plant biology, or learning about sustainability and self sufficiency as crops are sown, watered, tended, picked, and finally eaten: the students are physically as well as intellectually involved in their learning. There is also plenty of scope for fun with barefoot sensory trails echoing imaginary Bear hunts... with oozy squelchy mud, and time for quiet reading on cushions or curled up under a tree. Secondary students, often in smaller classes, of ten or fewer students, may study Italian in our newly constructed outdoor classroom, or enjoy university style seminars at one of the picnic tables dotted around our green campus. Teachers are expected to plan opportunities for outdoor learning into their termly programmes and we hope that next year, students will again be able to learn from the urban cityscapes of our iconic city as day trips resume.
An outdoor PSHE lesson with Year 6
Focus on fun
Perhaps one of the clues to help us understand why outdoor learning is so effective lies in the much quoted Chinese proverb: Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand. When students are outside, they are more alert, active and are often physically as well as mentally engaged in their tasks. I am a firm believer in learning through doing, and have seen the power of students pushing through fear, anxiety, uncertainty as they navigate unfamiliar situations, supported by familiar faces and expert guides.
During the four years in which I lived in the Swiss Alps, I saw first hand the transformative effects of Outdoor Education. Children who had grown up with every luxury, were expected to bivouac under a tarpaulin, to cook their dinner on a fire, clean the latrines and look out for each other as feet blistered, tempers frayed and friendships were tested.
As a whole school we undertook Challenges each term: every one a test of physical endurance, stamina and humour! My favourite? A 5 km run up a snowy red run piste with the sun setting behind us beyond Mont Blanc. With stars lighting the path, and sheer ice in parts underfoot, the camaraderie and sense of achievement once we reached the summit of the red run was incredible. The ride down in the gondola, and subsequent Challenge meal was made all the more memorable as we shared our trials and tribulations; teachers and students united through a real physical and mental challenge. Whether we were scrambling through obstacles, racing along the Rhone path, or paddleboarding on Lake Geneva, these adventurous experiences brought us all closer together.
It is not just my own anecdotal experience which makes me such a staunch advocate for the benefits of taking learning outside: there is a sizeable and growing body of research which confirms the positive effects and longer term benefits that can be gained. These advantages extend into areas which some may initially find surprising:
"Experience of the outdoors and wilderness has the potential to confer a multitude of benefits on young people's physical development, emotional and mental health and well being and societal development. Mental health and wellbeing benefits from play in natural settings appear to be long-term, realised in the form of emotional stability in young adulthood."
Surfing Ostia beach with Year 8
So, at Southlands this year we have piloted our own Adventure Sports programme, with our Lower Secondary students heading to the pineta for weekly trail biking sessions, or to the beach to learn surfing and SUP. Next year, we will roll this programme out across other year groups and introduce kayaking, orienteering and climbing to the menu. And whilst trips further afield remain off the menu for now, we hope to be able to enjoy all that Italy has to offer the adventurous. We will be searching for powder and getting on our skis again come winter and taking to the water for open swimming, sailing and surf in the warmer months.
In addition to regular academic lessons which take place outdoors, our students will, from September, have specific Outdoor Education and adventure learning sessions, practising the skills and behaviours which will not only help them to undertake successful expeditions in the wilderness, but also enable them to navigate the complex waters of career building. The diplomacy, leadership and patience required to build a water worthy raft and cross a river, are great training for any boardroom! Likewise, the tenacity and resilience required to summit a mountain will stand students in good stead for those times in life when they will need to dig deep and just push on.
Certainly, for many of the students in Switzerland, it was those experiences: summiting, or in fact, failing to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, overcoming a fear of heights on a via ferrata, or skiing down the mountain in the pitch black with only a flaming torch to guide the descent, that really helped to form their characters, and gave them the confidence and empathy which they carry with them now as successful young men and women in the world of work
Here in Rome, Southlands students are part of the wider Globeducate family of schools, giving them and our teachers access to a worldwide network of schools with whom to engage and collaborate. As soon as travel restrictions lift, our students will be heading to Portugal, France, Spain and the UK to undertake Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, participate in service projects and enjoy cultural exchanges with their Globeducate peers. This is all part of Outdoor Learning in its widest sense of taking people into new and unfamiliar environments and exposing them to new challenges and opportunities. .
A different type of vaccination?
In these pandemic times, perhaps being outdoors is just as vital an inoculation against the mental stresses of isolation, curfews, masks and lockdowns as those other chemical vaccines are to protect the physical body. We will certainly be redoubling our efforts to take more lessons beyond the classroom, to look to Mother Nature as the best teacher ever, and to help our students see, understand and appreciate the simple beauty that is all around them.
If you would like to learn more about the benefits of Outdoor Learning, the following websites and articles provide a good starting point:
Victoria Del Federico