Winston Churchill once said, “At first we build our buildings and then the buildings build us.” In the western world we have set ourselves on a road to believe that education happens inside buildings and have set up a series of tools to propagate that belief. In order to shift a paradigm of thinking from learning about or in nature to learning with nature, we need to create a new range of tools; approaches that support learning with nature so we can create a new concept of “buildings” for education that embraces nature.
Even though we have extensive research around the benefits of being in nature, our children still have very varying experiences in their educational settings. I would suggest that the reason for this is the perception of the challenges, one of which is how you integrate (and therefore value) the experiences outside. Stand alone activities hold an array of issues to consider. One is the relevance of the experiences to children. The second is that isolated moments do not necessarily take into account the learning journey of progression in thinking and understanding that learners are on.
The “learners” are in fact both the adult and the child, as we evolve effective outdoor practice in our work. As practitioners we need to engage in action research to look for the irregularities in the work we do, to ponder and question and to evaluate ourselves and our group practice. What it is children are doing outside? Where do their fascinations lie? How are we supporting them at the moment and how could we improve our practice? Education is far from being easy to quantify, as we work with individuals with emotions, with many ways of knowing. Describing what we do is a challenge in itself when we use text over other forms of documentation for adults and children. It is for this reason that I use Diagrams of Practice (Warden 2015) to visualise the bigger picture, the dynamics of an educational situation that allows us to analyse some of the issues and in so doing start to correct them.
There are a range of models for outdoor play all of which have varying features of practice. However, if we focus on the nature pedagogy that sits beneath them, it affords us a common ground for professional dialogue. If we take resources, time, space and the adult role we can begin to analyse and reflect upon our practice.
The process of creating the diagram opens up important conversations with staff about the management of outdoor play. Breaking it up into the four elements can focus attention and allow us to dig deeper to understand our practice:
- Resource allocation and use; use and movement; type and function; choice and ownership,
- Time spent outside in nature; structure and duration; frequency and connectivity to the learner,
- Adult role and relationship; style of interaction; perception of role; methodology of teaching and learning; understanding of the role of risk management,
- Physical access to natural spaces; in relation to distance from the building, movement to, from and within, subdivision of space and connection in learning across multiple spaces.
Working outside requires practitioners to develop a range of pedagogical skills. When we look at embedding learning in a range of spaces we need to be aware of how the learning is presented and whether it should look and be different in response to that environment. The intentional use of wilder spaces, natural outdoor play spaces, and then inside more traditional rooms is at the root of Nature Pedagogy (Warden 2015). Through considering progression in learning, we can move away from activity-driven experiences to learning dispositions developed through inter-curricular experiences from birth to 11 years old. When children have autonomy and ownership they have a sense of empowerment that can be used to create learning pathways through Floorbooks and Talking Tubs (Warden 1996). These authentic experiences and observation strategies are an integral part of ensuring that outdoor learning is valued and respected as an effective teaching and learning space.
Warden,C.( 2015) Learning with Nature- Embedding outdoor learning Sage
Warden,C.( 1996) Talking and Thinking Floorbooks. Mindstretchers.UK