Outdoor and experiential learning: benefits for children and schools
Submitting InstitutionPlymouth University
Unit of AssessmentEducation
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Education: Curriculum and Pedagogy, Specialist Studies In Education
Summary of the impact
This case study concerns a body of research conducted at Plymouth
University on outdoor and experiential learning. The research has impacted
upon children and schools through developing outdoor learning approaches
and schools making changes to the school physical environment to support
learning. It has also impacted upon practitioners and their practices and
influenced the review of outdoor learning curriculum in Victoria
(Australia). It has led to a successful Lottery bid, led by the Silvanus
Trust, which is having a direct impact on practitioners and their approach
to understanding outdoor learning and well-being.
This case study describes a body of research, undertaken at Plymouth
University as part of the Outdoor Experiential Learning Research Network.
The research network supports research activity through bids, partnership
working with practitioners, conference papers and sharing literature.
There has been a popular groundswell of support in recent years for
increasing children's connection to the natural environment for improved
health, well-being and educational outcomes, but a lack of research that
questions its purposes and potential benefits or how they accrue in
different contexts. The research programme explores how issues of `place'
and the outdoors enter into the construction of learning.
Much of the research has been led by Sue Waite (Associate Lecturer,
2003-12, Associate Professor, Reader, 2013-present). The initial study
concerned Forest Schools, an innovative educational approach to outdoor
play and learning in a woodland environment. The project `Forest Schools:
an evaluation of the opportunities and challenges in Early Years' (Waite
2005) focused on supporting and advising on a local authority's potential
investment into the Forest School's workforce programme. The research
found that the benefits of Forest School would be improved by more
integrated experiences with mainstream practice. It also found that there
needed to be clarification of the school's key expectations of children's
behaviour and learning and on Forest School pedagogical principles.
This was followed in 2009 by a study, funded by the ESRC, to understand
how changes in learning objectives between the Foundation Stage and Key
Stage 1 may influence teaching and learning practices. The study also
reviewed how `place', in particular outdoor contexts, may interact with
staff and children to construct ways of teaching and learning. The
research provided insights into pedagogies in different places and social
and affective support for learning, differentiating between place and
cultural affordances and gender issues in the outdoors;
Following this, Waite undertook an evaluation of the Exmoor Curriculum
(2010). The Exmoor Curriculum is a four year Programme developed with the
assistance of the Exmoor National Park Authority and the Exmoor Society.
Children work on the four year course and eventually become Junior Exmoor
Rangers. The research found that the approach had led to practical skill
development in pupils and was a source of inspiration for staff and
students. In 2010 Waite provided an analysis of the use of outdoor spaces
in two primary schools in urban and semi-urban environments in a period of
transition from play-based to national curriculum teaching (Waite, 2010).
A further research project `Good From Woods: How do activities in
woodland contribute to people and communities feeling good?' (2012-2014)
is studying people's participation in woodland activities and identifies
what type of well-being occurs as a result. Using a
practitioner-researcher approach, it has expanded knowledge relating to
social cohesion and well-being deriving from woodland activities, while
developing research capacity in the voluntary and community sector. This
Lottery funded project is jointly led by The Silvanus Trust and Plymouth
University with the Neroche Scheme, The Woodland Trust, and Forest
Research. The Silvanus Trust is a charity working through partnerships to
regenerate the woodlands in the South West for economic, social and
References to the research
Waite, S. (2011) `Teaching and learning outside the classroom: personal
values, alternative pedagogies and standards', Education 3-13, 39
(1), 65-82. International, peer-reviewed Journal of Primary, Elementary
and Early Years Education. This article has had 5741 article views and is
the journal's `Most read' article (as at summer 2013).
Waite, S. (2010) `Losing our way?: declining outdoor opportunities for
learning for children aged between 2 and 11'. Journal of Adventure
Education and Outdoor Learning. 10 (2), 111- 126.
International, peer-reviewed journal. This article has had 3795 views and
is the journal's `Most Read' article (as at summer 2013).
Waite, S. (2007) 'Memories are made of this': some reflections on outdoor
learning and recall. Education 3-13, 35 (4), pp. 333 -
347. International, peer-reviewed Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early
Years Education. This article has had 1999 article views (as at summer
Davis, B. Rea, T. & Waite, S. (2006) `The Special Nature of the
Outdoors: its contribution to the education of children aged 3-11', Australian
Journal of Outdoor Education, 10, (2), 3-12. Refereed journal of the
Outdoor Council of Australia.
Waite, S. (Ed.) (2011) Children learning outside the classroom: from
birth to eleven, SAGE: London. An edited book starting with Waite
and followed by chapters from leaders in the field.
Goodenough, A. & Waite, S. (2012) Well-being from woodlands: The
challenge of identifying what's good from woods, ECOS journal of British
Association for Nature Conservation, [Online] Available: http://www.banc.org.uk/ecos/
[25 March 2013]
Details of the impact
The research outlined has had specific impact on the curriculum of
schools as well as policy and practices within the UK and in Victoria,
Australia. The research on alternative pedagogies as children move from
Foundation to Stage 1, and in particular, the finding that outdoor
learning opportunities can positively impact on learning outcomes, was
used to frame an entire school development plan.
The first school involved in the research, Leigham Primary, put resources
into ensuring that this was at the heart of their educational offer.
Identifying CPD needs, staff went on an allotment training day to
overcome, for example some reluctance to engage with outdoor activity.
They have moved their Foundation stage classrooms to have access to the
outdoors, allow children to independently choose whether to play outside
or not, and use the local woods more.
"The study provided practitioners with the opportunity to reflect on
their practice and consider the importance of the learning that takes
place outside the classroom. I feel that since the study I have seen
more evidence of 'outdoor learning' taking place across Foundation Stage
2 and Key Stage 1." Literacy Co-ordinator, Leigham Primary School,
The other school involved in the research approached school development
through the lens of creativity and extended their school grounds with more
structured learning prompts such as an earth mound dragon to stimulate
storytelling, class-designed seating areas, chickens, and a poly tunnel
for growing crops and for outdoor science. They also invested in literacy
belts, a children's toolbelt with pencils and a notebook, to wear in
outdoor spaces. As stated by the Head of Little Stoke School "As a
school we recognise it makes a huge difference. The children are so much
more engaged and excited about what they are doing."
Based on her research findings, Waite was asked to be the external
commentator on the outdoor education middle school curriculum in Victoria,
Australia and had a direct impact on curriculum policy and practice. She
was also invited to present key messages from the research to teachers in
Singapore engaged in delivering a new curriculum offer, `The Programme for
Active Learning'. As stated by the Outdoor Education Curriculum Developer
in Victoria "Sue Waite's research has been influential in shaping both
policy and practice. Her input to this process helped shape the review
of the curriculum in terms of both policy and content".
Waite established the Outdoor and Experiential Learning Research Network
as a result of the research. This provides a forum for discussing and
sharing research and is used widely by practitioners. This network led to
the partnership between Plymouth University and The Silvanus Trust and the
development of a successful Lottery bid for almost half a million pounds
for the Good from Woods project. The project, which started in
2010, is based upon the previous research undertaken by Waite and runs
This research is impacting upon practitioner skills and approaches.
Forest School practitioners use the research to understand the pedagogical
principles underpinning their work. Practitioners were trained to research
their own practice and then cascade the skills and learning to other
practitioners, resulting in early impact on organisations. Waite mentors
the practitioner-researchers. The Silvanus Trust reported an increased
understanding of ethics and research approaches. The organisation also
feels more confident and has been able to develop by bidding for funding
that they wouldn't have previously gone for without the `Good for
Woods' research. Recent successes for the Silvanus Trust includes
being awarded a national evaluation from Defra for the Big Tree Plant and
a Heritage Lottery grant for research into woodland cultures. Both of
these successes have been attributed to the impact of the Good from Woods
research as stated below:
"The experience gained from working with Plymouth University has
increased our confidence and added to our track record, helping us to
successfully bid for work we might not otherwise have bid for...Our
partnership with Plymouth University on the Good from Woods Lottery
funded research project has definitely brought us up to speed on
research ethics.... We are actively incorporating this best practice
into the Trusts other activities."
The Steering Group for Good from Woods includes representation from the
Woodland Trust, which has resulted in national influence on policy on how
to support well-being in and for woodland. As described by the Woodland
Trust... `I've enjoyed reading the GFW report; there are some
absolutely fascinating findings which I think will greatly benefit us at
the Trust and will make a real difference to how we manage our events
and materials for schools in the future.'
Sources to corroborate the impact
1) Statement from the Silvanus Trust detailing the impact of the Good
from Woods research project on the Silvanus Trust
2) Statement from the Education Manager, Exmoor National Park Authority
3) Factual statement from Woodland Trust Officer on how the research
benefits the Trust in the way they manage events
4) Outdoor and experiential learning research network that demonstrates
the range of work practitioners can access http://www.edu.plymouth.ac.uk/oelresnet/index.html
5) Statement from the Lead on Learning in the Natural Environment,
6) Statement from the Outdoor Education Officer, Ministry of Education,
7) Statement from the Outdoor Education Curriculum Developer, La Trobe
University, Australia on how the research shaped the Victoria school
8) ESRC Impact Report: Opportunities afforded by the outdoors for
alternative pedagogies as children move from Foundation Stage to Year 1. http://www.esrc.ac.uk/my-esrc/grants/RES-000-22-3065/outputs/read/8cd461a9-4b8a-4ec5-8165-b20b9541aa06
BBC news interview with Sue Waite, Headteacher and schoolchildren in
Bristol. Head highlights the difference the research has made to the