Scotland offers schools and their pupils one of the richest and most varied outdoor classrooms in the world. Our own back yard – whether that is rural, urban, or suburban – is one of the greatest resources available in taking forward the aims, principles and values of the Curriculum for Excellence.
This learning resource looks at opportunities and ways to plan for learning and includes several case studies across Scotland. It provides you with examples of schools that have embraced outdoor learning opportunities beyond the school wall.
From taking the school as the hub for learning to shifting onto school grounds and beyond, we can map these into educational environments to create more opportunities for learning.
What is outdoor learning?
Outdoor learning is about creating the richest, most varied and stimulating environment to educate our young people.
It’s about play and the development of social, physical, emotional, and cognitive skills. And a means of enriching the experiences of every aspect of learning from early years through to secondary school and beyond.
Outdoor learning can take place in our school grounds, but it can also include tapping into resources beyond the school gate.
Investment in our schools, towns and communities can be an important step to delivering better environments for learning. But before money is spent it’s worth investigating and understanding how to use a whole place for education.
To initiate change and ultimately great spaces for learning, we must begin by having conversations. Discussions about understanding the existing context of a place, and the hopes and ambitions for learning.
Participation for outdoor learning
Participation is about placing learners at the heart of decision making. It’s the process of involving, engaging and listening to the everyday users of spaces and places so that their experiences can help to inform the decisions and changes that will affect them in the future.
Participation can offer a rich and varied learning opportunity, embracing a range of cross-curricular potential. It also has the power to encourage engagement for our young people and active citizens, who value and enjoy our natural and world.
Engagement is one means to unlock different environments potential, to understand how pupils see their surrounding places and how they want to learn in it.
To develop approaches to outdoor learning, the best places to start is by speaking to our students. By giving them the opportunity and space to develop ideas, our students can provide imaginative and innovative suggestions.
Creating a brief for outdoor learning through participation can provide opportunities for change at a range of different levels including small scale, medium and large-scale projects.
Participation can provide a strong mandate for change. It can help our schools gather evidence of how school users want to learn and teach and can be a key to understanding the needs of the community.
Opportunities for outdoor learning
This range of opportunities can be seen as lying in three concentric rings (areas), of which the school is at the centre. Here are some general benefits of learning across these three rings.
The school grounds: areas immediately outside the school building
School grounds offer a range of benefits, for play, socialising and learning. Being outdoors and having the opportunity to play remains equally important throughout childhood – from early years through to adulthood.
Image credit: Silje Eirin Aure
It also provides benefits such as:
- convenient immediacy
- familiarity for teachers
- control over what goes into school grounds and how to arrange it
- fewer risk assessments
The streets and routes: connecting areas where students live and learn
To fulfil the aims of broad general education, students should be engaging with the world in which they live. By going out into the community, students can learn about how plans are made, and decisions taken about their immediate environment.
Image credit: Silje Eirin Aure
Key considerations include:
- embedding learning beyond the school walls, planning must happen over the long term
- progressive, more innovative and daring experiences as confidence and competence grows
- teaching and learning, planned in the context of what the environment can offer as well as what the curriculum requires
- offering clear additional benefits to the learning experience for schools engaging in environments beyond the school walls
Whole town: connecting schools, other buildings and institutions
As schools look to develop new and meaningful two-way partnerships with wider communities it’s useful to include ‘alternative classrooms’, by using existing resources available in places to complement and enhance school classroom learning.
Places which have specialist facilities already developed, usually for non-school purposes such as theatres, cinemas, garden centres, churches, courtrooms, galleries.
Image credit: Silje Eirin Aure
Key considerations include:
- timetabling to ensure there are (at least) double periods to help accommodate learning outside the classroom
- creativity and resourcefulness as it will stimulate the most positive partnerships. Involving young people themselves in the formation of these partnerships can be part of the learning process
- allowing students to arrange their own learning opportunities by creating the structure that lets them plan and arrange a programme of learning
Related case studies for outdoor learning
Also available in the publication, you can read seven related case studies associated to outdoor learning below. Each school highlights the examples of outdoor learnings, the benefits it provides and key takeaways for you to consider for your schools outdoor learning opportunities.
Kirkcudbright Academy uses a variety of outdoor spaces for curricular use, in the school grounds and beyond.
The Beechgrove Garden project provided a catalyst for the academy’s approach to using the school grounds for learning. In the 14 years since this project, the school has gradually claimed different spaces around the school for learning used by all curricular areas such as:
- planted beds
- a remembrance garden
- outdoor classroom or gathering space with seating on a raised platform
- woodland walk
The garden project coincided with a review of the school’s syllabus. The aim of the review was to maximise the curricular options available to all students at a small secondary school.
The Academy has worked with several partners to achieve the best opportunities and outcomes for its students. They have used ASDAN—a British education charity and awarding organisation—Key Skills scheme of work to support learning in different curricular areas.
A local artist helped students create beach art and the school has worked with charities and businesses (Forestry Commission, the Royal National Lifeboats Institution and West Coast Sea Products) to reflect its setting and the community it serves.
- Learning and experiencing the local environment allowing students to make the most of the facilities on their doorstep and recognise the contribution it can make to maintaining their own health and wellbeing
- Knowledge on how to access the environment safely and responsibly
- Thematic approach allows for curricular coverage and the development of progression pathways
- Make the most of local context and connections for relevant learning opportunities
- General consents or block consents kept for blocks of work, and a bank of risk assessments kept on file. Pupils can be involved in creating risk assessments as part of lesson plans and covered within the Health and Wellbeing curriculum
- Double period lessons free up the timetable for outdoor learning
- Collaboration between departments maximises opportunities for learning, but time must be available to develop relationships and work out shared programmes of work
At Tain Royal Academy, a class of students built a classroom in the school grounds to give themselves a dedicated spaces for their construction skills course.
Prior to this dedicated spaces, the students had previously made hour long trips to Inverness college each week to attend the construction skills course. With a lack of dedicated space within the school building, the students suggested to build a classroom in the schools’ grounds.
The students collaborated with local businesses who supported the technical detail of the build with the physical structure constructed by the students and their technical teacher. The site was treated as a professional working site and students were appointed roles and responsibilities (such as Site Safety Officer).
- Provides real life context and challenges which cannot be experienced in the classroom
- Introduces Health and Safety, and Risk Assessments as an integrated part of the curriculum and the learning experience
- Ensures discussions around obstacles with students and encourages them to take responsibility
- Provides students with learnings on how to access the environment safely and responsibly
- Full support from class teacher and management team. A project can build staff confidence and provide encouragement to take on new challenges
- Harness the experience, skills, and good will of the local community (including professional bodies)
- Take on board ideas of students who use experiences as part of the curriculum
At Perth Academy a dedicated outdoor learning resource was built close to the main school entrance and next to the science department. As a condition of the funding, the space is made available to the wider community.
The outdoor learning resource consists of a collection of two outdoor classrooms with tables and benches, a school garden, hedging, woodland planting, and a drama space. The area serves as a place to learn, gather pupils who have been working outdoors elsewhere in the school grounds, and a social space used during breaks and lunchtimes.
These dedicated outdoor learning resources include an:
- outdoor classrooms that accommodate between 20 to 30 students and is currently used by all departments
- a triangular stage and seating area, which was originally built for the Drama Department. This performance area has a multi-purpose function for learning, teaching and social space
- the school garden which is used by many departments such as home economics, modern language, maths department, biology and technical department
- Provides wide cross-curricular educational opportunities
- Opportunities of competitions raise the profile of the resource, both within the school and wider community
- Provides business enterprise/fundraising opportunities through cultivation and sale of plants
- Placing the learning resource in a very visible and easily accessed area means that students and adults are constantly reminded of its usefulness and availability
- Planning for community use (including disabled access) opens additional funding opportunities
- Fundraising within the school community raises the profile of projects and helps develop a greater sense of involvement and ownership
Hillpark Secondary School used a John Muir Award scheme to drive an extension and development of outdoor learning at the school.
A Learning Support teacher, with strong support from the Senior Management team used the Award scheme to stimulate both student and staff engagement. For a week during summer term, all S1 pupils were put forward for the John Muir Award at Discover Level.
Keeping to the existing timetable, teachers were asked to deliver lessons in support of the Award and were required to teach at least one period outside. The Learning Support teacher supported staff with suggested lesson plans linking the learning to the curriculum.
There was an overwhelmingly positive reaction from staff who were surprised by the improvement of student engagement and positive change in interactions between students and adults.
The school also arranged a short trip to Pollok Park by contacting the rangers. Students were well behaved during the trip and staff noted an opportunity for them to have conversations with each other.
- Students can demonstrate new skills and strengths which are not obvious in a classroom setting. Outdoor learning also promotes a sense of self-worth and confidence
- The physical evidence of work accomplished helps instil a sense of pride in the school and their local area
- Working with different outside agencies provides structure, support, and resources, and also allows pupils to meet professionals in different fields
- Develop staff confidence by initiating a short-term project with cross curricular targets. Working with the support of colleagues and having shared goals is helpful
- Building trust between staff and students is important to have confidence in leaving the school grounds. Include a bank of risk assessments, which reduces the need for each new project or task
- Not to underestimate the experience of visiting and exploring the local environment – for some pupils it may be their first opportunity
At Speyside High School, the senior management team strongly supports the promotion of outdoor learning and the delivery of the curriculum outside of the classroom. This has been established with the support of a teacher tasked with further developing outdoor learning and leadership.
The school was already doing considerable outdoor adventure activities – mountain biking, kayaking, orienteering – all of which could be done locally, or at a nearby outdoor centre.
Other opportunities include:
- creating a small art project prior to felling several trees for an extension for the school such as drawing and painting the trees, creating stories of the trees by learning about their age and creating faces out of clay and attaching it to the trees
- using a sloped and overgrown wooded area as a school garden which includes raised beds and vegetable plots. Students are involved in clearing the area and fundraising for the project
- establishing links with external partners and businesses to enhance the student experience by providing real-life context to learning
- Developing partnerships and relationships with community groups and organisations offer real life contexts for learning
- Enriched learning experiences by utilising space within and out with the school, and seeing opportunities for learning in the process of developing outdoor space
- Involving pupils in decision making
- Look for the opportunities afforded by spaces however small or awkward and develop what you have
- Create time for collaboration between staff and between subject areas so that teachers can share and extend their practice
- Consider double periods to allow more lessons in the grounds and beyond
Liberton High School provides a supportive role in outdoor learning to develop opportunities in its extensive grounds.
The school has established several positive programmes which looks to adopt an approach to build learning progressions. The school has established several positive outdoor learning programmes, which looks to adopt an approach to build learning progressions, with their geography teacher as its lead.
Some of the programmes completed so far include:
- geography programmes which take learnings from indoors to outdoors, into the local area (e.g., Arthur’s Seat), as an application of the skills and knowledge gained from the classroom
- using a small, enclosed courtyard which is home to the school hens, fed and looked after each day by students
- using a school garden containing raised beds, used as a potting shed or greenhouse by the Eco Schools Group
- planting young orchards to a student’s design on the south side of the school on the slopes above the tarmac
- to drive the use of a large tarmac space at the rear of the school, learners have designed outdoor classrooms intending to be taken forward and built
There are many opportunities that are possible to take outdoor learning outdoors throughout the school. To ensure the continuation of the good work, departments and faculties aim to work together to evaluate what has been done so far and identify ways to embed and extend outdoor learning across the curriculum.
- Students who work regularly outside are developing a sense of place and a sense of connection and pride in their school grounds
- Students appear engaged with their learning and are providing feedback to ensure self-development and progression
- The role of a lead in outdoor learning was supported by the Council and provides time, and resource for staff development and collaboration
- Students can build skills in the safe and familiar school environment, which can then be applied further afield, perhaps in more challenging environments
- Make outdoor learning part of the daily routine and ensure that general consents and permission forms are completed at the start of the year and kept centrally so there is no need to issue extra paperwork
Gairloch High School made the decision to embed outdoor learning across the curriculum and ensured space in the timetable to accommodate learning outside the classroom and beyond the school campus.
The school rents a building at Slattadale Forest, which is approximately eight miles from Gairloch – a 20-minute drive in the school minibus.
Part of the building is sound and watertight, offering classroom facilities, and a kitchen and WC facilities. The other half is semi derelict and provides the school with a learning opportunity. A teacher suggested the idea of getting students to come with ideas of how they could develop Slattadale and learning design skills in the process.
The school aims to use Slattadale as a resource for all departments, enabling them to take learning outdoors. It will also be opened to associated primary schools or other visiting groups
The school also maximises the limited outdoor space they have available. A narrow strip of flat ground behind the school building has been utilised for composting spaces, and an equipment shed built by students.
Students have built raised beds, researched the conditions and seasons, and have devised suitable planting schemes. Produce goes into the local horticultural show and is used in the school canteen.
- The school has made a conscious decision to embed outdoor learning across the curriculum, to make it sustainable, and to ensure that there is progression and coverage throughout S1 – S6
- Educational opportunities reflect the local context. In Gairloch, there are many outdoor education opportunities offered to pupils, some done in partnership with local businesses engaged in activity tourism
- Block the timetable so that there are double periods to help accommodate learning outside the classroom and beyond the school campus
- Constantly add risk assessments, available to all staff, to cover many of the regular activities beyond the classroom. Students should also take responsibility for themselves and others, come prepared for work (in classrooms or outdoors)
- Work with the local community and local businesses to access skills, resources, and support, to provide real life contexts for learning in and outside of the classroom
- The local physical, economic, and social environments can all be seen as learning resources
Planning for learning
When considering the way how a local space might be planned to benefit students, we need to consider the three different groups of people it would benefit, its teachers, learners and community.
The teacher needs a space that is safe and easy to get to, offering a rich learning environment for it to be worth making the effort to take their students to.
The learner needs to find fascination and wonder in the landscape to develop a sense of place and belonging and feel comfortable.
‘Prospect’ and ‘refuge’ are both important concepts, places where children can observe what is happening around them without their presence impacting on the natural order.
The community (e.g., town planner, developer, the council, residents, and businesses) need affordable, sustainable, and accessible spaces that are pleasant to be in and have effective connections to other communities.
Collaboration for learning
Unlocking the potential of outdoor settings for learning is about three things:
- mapping the potential for learning and learner participation
- linking these opportunities directly to the school’s curriculum needs and community
- conversations between the individuals, groups, and organisations responsible for the space, its management and development
It is about working together to discuss the benefits of outdoor learning and collaborative work in action. Collaboration ensures that outdoor settings for learning are relevant, useful, and sustainable, not one-off experiences.
Exploring the learning potential of spaces within and beyond the school ground is a learning opportunity, which could be organised as an active participation process by students working within and between year groups.
Capturing the potential as film, mapping, stories, drawings, performances can draw on the resources and capabilities across the departments of the school.
The act of mapping potential needs to be backed up with feedback to students. It could include one or all the following: a recognition of effort, some possibility that the ideas gathered will be realised, clear links to their study.
This is about collaborating between students, teachers, communities, and decision makers.
Thinking of outdoor settings as an extended classroom is about reflecting on how the creative use of space might achieve learning outcomes. It is about clearly defining the learning objectives, the why, what, and how of capturing learning and teaching it outside.
It also includes cross departmental collaboration on project working and peer to peer support. Teachers need to have conversations on how to collaborate for learning and what the best spaces would be to create the richest experience.
This is about clear articulation of the learning benefit and the appropriate teaching methods.
How people connect with and use these spaces is important. A learner participation driven approach to using outdoor spaces to learn, linked to a measurable means of connecting learning to achievement, provides rich data and evidence of spatial need.
Understanding who the outdoor spaces is used for, its learning purpose, and the overall experience can help inform investment decisions in the school estate and for external spaces used by people in the wider community.
This is about understanding the culture of spatial use and provides a clear framework to share on the lessons learned from using outdoor settings for learning. The evidence collected to inform decisions about how spaces are changed or improved is about smart decision making.
This can allow schools to consider outdoor learning spaces from the start by:
- informing master planning decisions on how the school and grounds could change
- informing the brief of a new or refurbished schools
The most important aspect of outdoor settings for learning is using them. Breaking down barriers of biases from using the space is as important as the design itself. This requires conversations between learners, teachers, and the people responsible for the space, including asset managers, building managers and planners.
A shared ambition for use will inform a brief for change, linking to learning and investment priorities, to create a sustainable culture of making the best of the opportunities to use outdoor settings for learning.
“There is potential for learning in shops, factories, farms and other workplaces to enrich the learning experience of children as much as gardens, allotments, beaches, theatres, museums and libraries. By recognising this, we can enable deeper and more relevant knowledge and understanding, as well as forging more meaningful links between schools and communities.”
Dugald Forbes, Educationalist and retired Headteacher of Kirkcudbright Academy
Header image credit: Silje Eirin Aure
A guide to participation: what we've learnt so far
This short guide takes you through what participation is, why we do it, when we do it and who does it. As a separate standalone guide, you can learn more about the different scenarios and examples that demonstrate the breadth and scale of potential participation projects.