Not all classrooms have four walls

We have all heard for a number of years now about the benefits of outdoor learning for children and, indeed, adults. But surely this is just common sense and, if we are lucky enough, part of our everyday lifestyle? Being outside, whatever the weather, makes us feel better. It opens up our mind and provides us with the opportunity to think in a different way.

I am one of those lucky people. At Ipswich High School we have 87 acres of the most breath-taking outside space; grazing land with sheep, developed woodland, fields of grass and the shoreline of the River Orwell on our perimeter. Our pupils and staff make use of this in everyday lessons through Forest and Beach School work, science lessons, PE sessions and enrichment opportunities such as orienteering. Our site is our biggest and most unique resource, constantly changing with the seasons and therefore providing an exciting and inspiring stimulus for us to learn from.

Ipswich High School pupils enjoying our outdoor education

Apart from the obvious health benefits of working outside, both mentally and physically, research has shown that it can decrease stress levels. This is a growing problem in our state schools where 82% of school leaders have reported that children are suffering from stress especially around SATs time in May. A time when our Key Stage Two children will be taking part in Bikeability (cycling proficiency) and Outdoor Team Building residentials. Learning outside the classroom supports the development of a healthy and active lifestyle by offering pupils opportunities for physical activity, freedom and movement, and promoting a sense of well-being.

Our pupils are very proud of their environment and they have a developed understanding of how we can look after it. Currently we are working towards the Green Flag Eco Schools award after successfully gaining our silver and bronze awards. We are very aware of current environmental issues and have recently made a rule of no plastic bottles on site; a small gesture that can make a big impact.

As individuals, more outdoor curriculum time can improve behaviour, increase motivation and improve memory skills indoors, all resulting in better grades. We find that pupils develop their communication skills outside when they are working together and are therefore more effective when they return to the classroom environment. Outdoor education achieves the gains in communication by requiring pupils to solve problems, lead discussions, contribute their ideas by making their voices heard and also providing each other with feedback.

In addition to using our site, we also use our local area as part of our outdoor education. In the Summer Term, Year 3 and Key Stage One visited Felixstowe beach as part of our Beach School initiative, being the only school in the area offering this exciting opportunity. With the beautiful weather we had this summer we also had the opportunity to interact with many members of the public who were curious as to what we were up to. Building shelters in teams to protect us from the sun can be quite interesting with a breeze and a public audience! The pupils are always keen to tell people what we are learning about and take pride in their school. We also sail down at Woolverstone Marina and ski at the dry slope in Wherstead both of which are on our doorstep; all ideal times to improve our community involvement.

We hear a great deal about risk-taking and wrapping children in cotton wool. In our Forest School sessions we give our pupils the freedom to take calculated risks whether this is climbing a tree or using sharp tools to make an object. They learn to risk assess by observing others, problem-solving and trying things out practically. This promotes resilience, independence and ultimately confidence to tackle tasks with enthusiasm and determination. We are very aware that learning does not stop outside the classroom, on the contrary learning should flow seamlessly between indoors and outdoors; skills are transferable and we make the most of our resources wherever we are learning.

We live in a beautiful part of the world and we want our pupils to appreciate and value it. By working and learning in the outdoors our pupils will understand and respect nature and have a life-long respect for our environment, not all classrooms have to have four walls.

By Eileen Fisher, Head of Ipswich High School Prep School