No better tonic than fresh air?

Published: Posted on

By Victoria Saunders, Lecturer in Primary Teacher Education
School of Education, University of Birmingham

I am reflecting on this as I am stood in my street watching my three-year-old daughter attempt to ride her bike. An 8-year-old boy who lives at the top of the road, and who my daughter has never met before, is trying to show her how to steer. He gets off his bike and walks down the road holding on to her handlebars while she is steering. He is encouraging her all the time saying ‘well done, keep going, you’ve done it!’ Both of them are beaming – my daughter has a sense of achievement, and the little boy looks on in pride. These feelings and emotions could not be achieved sat in front of the television or a computer screen.

With recent studies suggesting children spend as little as 4 hours a week outside, it’s no wonder we are seeing an increase in child mental health and physical health issues. Children are missing out on outdoor experiences as they spend so much of their free time sitting in front of the television or with a controller in their hands.

Children thrive and flourish in the outdoors; freedom enables them to explore that natural sense of curiosity; it allows them to take risks; it allows them to fail and succeed in a supportive environment. Therefore surely we should be promoting this more in our schools?

I carried out a small study in a primary school which involved young children designing their own outdoor environment. The findings from this showed:

• Children as young as five have a voice, and they know exactly what they want and what is important to meet their needs.
• An effective outdoor environment was designed and developed by listening to the ideas of children.
• To achieve the desired outcome of creating a school ethos of valuing an outdoor education, all staff, pupils and parents need to be supportive.
• It is important to involve parents and share the value of learning and being outdoors.
• Children need a sense of challenge and opportunity to make mistakes, and access to outdoors makes it easier to enable this.
• Children learn best when they are engaged and having fun.
• Having access to an outdoor environment opens up many different opportunities and learning experiences for children.
• Children and staff are far happier and relaxed when learning outside.
• Giving children access to the outdoors can help raise self-esteem and confidence.

The research carried out during the study showed that giving children access to the outdoors does have a positive impact on pupil wellbeing and academic achievement. Especially if you take into account that a happy and contented child is more likely to feel relaxed and hence capable of taking in information all around them. The outdoors encourages both staff and children to feel relaxed, especially as there is no worry of creating too much noise or too much mess – the rules are different outside!

Reflecting again, I watch my daughter on her bike. Here is an example of the opportunity for deep learning – the little boy is teaching someone else a new skill. The skill involved may be riding a bike, and not deemed as academic, but what the boy is developing are skills of coaching and mentoring which can be transferred into the classroom and applied to his own learning. We do not give children enough opportunities like this in our schools, and I think if we were to raise self-esteem and confidence in this way, we would have more children doing better academically and less mental health issues, especially in our younger children.

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