Innovation and outdoor education

Children at Bowling Park School, Bradford
Photo credit: Bowling Park School

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An inner-city school in Bradford has been making the most of its outdoor space for over a year now, slowly integrating the natural environment, recycling and traditional outdoor-learning skills into its whole school curriculum. This has been part of its drive to create new and innovative world-class learning opportunities for its children.

Bowling Park Primary provides education for over 700 children from a wide range of backgrounds. Its ethos is one of ‘entitlement for all’ and a desire to offer children a huge range of different learning opportunties. These range from creating and telling stories to planting trees; from making its own garden furniture and repurposing outdoor hardstanding areas into open-air learning stations, to planning an enterprise project that will involve partnerships with local businesses.

It’s an innovative and maybe unusual way of working, but an approach that is being used globally by an increasing number of schools, particularly those in Finland who are seen as the world leaders in education.

According to head of school Kate Rhodes, “It isn’t just about making a classroom outside; it’s a whole philosophy of being part of the community outside of school. It’s also about bringing the outside into the inside of school and that includes involving the parents and carers at every opportunity.”

Outdoor learning
Photo credit: Bowling Park School

She goes on to say, “our school also has a huge focus on storytelling, because there’s plenty of evidence to back up that being good at oracy and being able to communicate effectively has a huge positive impact on learning but also self esteem, making children more effective learners”.

The school, which has been open throughout the covid crisis for children of key workers and others who needed the childcare, has also delivered lunchbags three times a week to every family, and food parcels to over 30 families twice a week.

“We made a large investment in a new garden and learning area last year, where children could learn more about the environment and learn real life practical skills. So our approach to outdoor learning and all the things that go with it has really come into it’s own since the covid crisis. We teach our children to be flexible, to be resilient but above all to find joy in their learning and it’s our job to great a curriculum that facilitates that for all children.

“It’s about the health benefits of our approach too, all the evidence points to the fact that giving children positive and meaningful oudoor learning experiences contributes to their mental, physical and emotional health. We are very aware that not everyone will want to pursue an academic career and we want to show children that their practical skills and interests are valuable too!”

This mode of learning works on a principal known by playworkers as the ‘theory of loose parts’. Children are presented with an open-ended situation and a range of resources with which they can experiment, sometimes with a particular objective in mind, or sometimes just to discover the properties of different types of materials. It resembles the types of activity in which children in pre-technological societies frequently engage, and gives more room for creativity than the type of highly objective-focused learning in which children are now expected to engage through the direction of the national curriculum.

Bowling Park Primary is outward looking in terms of the partners it works with, which include universities, sports experts and its artist-in-residence, storyteller and author Richard O’Neill. Richard brings a wealth of traditional learning which the teachers blend with the latest educational latest research.

Making bread on an open fire
Photo credit: Richard O’Neill

Kate adds “Of course it would be easier just to buy something off the shelf or do things the way they’ve always been done, but that’s not the Bowling way. Covid-19 has changed the whole world and we believe that the changes we’ve made and continue to make put us in a very good place to respond positively and practically and continue to give our children the best learning experiences possible outside and inside the classroom now and into the future.”

Covid truly has changed the world, and nature has so far benefited from it. Let’s seize the opportunity to learn from nature and experience these benefits ourselves in a lasting way. Our children deserve it.

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