What Is Outdoor Learning?

Picture of Calum


International Primary Teacher and Outdoor Learning Specialist, with over ten years experience. I hold an MSc in Outdoor Education and PGDE in Primary Education.

Introducing Outdoor Learning

Welcome, and thanks for reading my first blog post. I want to start with an introduction to outdoor learning within primary education.

Outdoor learning teacher toolkit.

It can be a little tricky to find an all-encompassing definition of outdoor learning. The Institute of Outdoor Learning (2020) defines outdoor learning as a broad term that includes discovery, experimentation, learning about and connecting to the natural world, and engaging in environmental and adventure activities.

Within primary education, there’s an emphasis on the importance of educationally legitimising outdoor learning. For example, Christie et al. (2015) describe outdoor learning as a ‘pedagogical approach that can be used to cover curricular experiences and outcomes.’

Outdoor learning can mean many different things to different people based on their past experiences and training. Reflecting on my own experiences and research, I currently view outdoor learning as a pedagogical (teaching) approach that can complement and extend classroom learning, develop life skills, and allow children to discover and learn from outdoor environments (natural, school grounds and urban).

 I understand that beliefs and opinions often develop over time, so this current viewpoint of outdoor learning is flexible. My history with outdoor learning goes back to childhood. In my own primary school experience within residential centres in Scotland, I participated in physical activities such as climbing, kayaking and competing in raft-building challenges. Then, when I became a class teacher and began my MSc research, I discovered that there was a much larger educational framework to explore with outdoor learning.


Insect hunts are always fun.
Benefits of Outdoor Learning

The benefits of outdoor learning are well documented. Waite (2011) and Blair (2009) were two papers that I found particularly helpful, and I’ve included them, among others, in my reading list below. The benefits discussed in these papers include freedom, fun, authenticity, autonomy, and physicality. They highlight that outdoor learning activities can improve self-esteem and self-confidence. These authors also go into depth about the cognitive values of outdoor learning.

For me, however, the key motivating factor that informs my decision to facilitate outdoor learning is getting the children outside in the first place. Unfortunately, children today are spending less time in nature. Louv discusses this in a 2008 paper, calling this contemporary issue ‘nature-deficit disorder.’ This lack of connectivity between children and the outdoors could have implications for future generations in regard to conservation and global sustainability.

Given the current global climate crisis and global sustainable development objectives, outdoor learning could be viewed as a robust framework to explore sustainability issues. Furthermore, by using outdoor learning, teachers could help children develop a more profound connection with nature, with the hope that such a connection will influence their future environmental behaviours and values (Beames et al., 2012). In a future post, I’ll discuss the complementary fit between sustainability education and outdoor learning.


Discovering and learning.
Forest Schools

The emergence of Forest Schools is a relevant development in outdoor learning in the British and International education systems. The idea was first developed in the UK through observation of the Swedish forest kindergartens. Forest Schools are often facilitated by teachers and teaching assistants who have the extra qualifications to lead these sessions (Waite et al., 2015). Forest Schools allow children to access natural environments, offering child-initiated and play-based learning experiences.

I recently participated in Forest Schools practical skills training, which I found to be a delightful experience. I am completing my portfolio to become a Level 3 Forest School Leader. I will discuss Forest schools in future posts, reflecting on my experiences and relevant research.


Practising my fire-lighting skills during my forest schools training course.
Local Environments

The focus of a future blog post will be discussing the selection of outdoor learning environments. Now, however, I’ll share are a few key points to give you some insight about what’s to come.

It is becoming more accepted that outdoor learning is most effective when facilitated in local environments relevant to the learners (Wistoft, 2013). There is a growing realisation within primary education that outdoor learning is easier to accomplish in the school’s local environment or backyard. Schools are now concentrating on developing their own green spaces (van Dijk–Wesselius et al., 2020). There is also discussion within educational research about the academic legitimacy of residential school experiences (Beames et al., 2009).

It is also essential to understand that outdoor learning does not always have to focus on natural environments. For example, I have facilitated community walks for my learners in local urban areas for the last two years. There are often rich learning opportunities to be discovered within local communities, so allowing children to explore real-life contexts such as shops, public transport, or historic buildings is highly beneficial. These contexts provide children with authentic experiences that can often be easily linked with curricular outcomes.

Scavenger hunts are great for learning about nature.


How Could Outdoor Learning Best Fit Into Your Teaching Practice?

Teachers must regularly adapt to curriculum redesign, educational policy change, and subject initiatives (Baumfied et al., 2012), and the complexity can be overwhelming. Therefore, my starting point was deciding how best to fit outdoor learning into my existing teaching practice.

As a teacher, we all have areas of interest and strengths. Choosing one of these as the foundation of your practice can add to an enjoyment factor to your lessons. Enthusiasm will help create an outdoor learning culture within your organisation (Ross et al., 2014). For example, I enjoy learning about nature and being in forested areas. Therefore, I started my outdoor learning journey by taking my year 3 class to the forest once a week to complete a task linked to our classroom topics, enjoy free play and eat their snacks. The forest was a twenty-minute walk from the school, and this trip was timetabled into my weekly plans. I had regular parent helpers and continued using the same area to build a familiar routine for my learners.

However, it may be more relevant to your practice or enjoyable for you to use your school grounds to teach science, focus on gardening skills, use the outdoors as a stimulus for your literacy lesson… the list goes on. I look forward to sharing some of my lesson ideas with you in future posts.

Thank you for reading my very first post. In my next post, I’ll discuss how outdoor learning can complement and extend a primary education curriculum.

Related Posts

Using Local Environments For Outdoor Learning

Linking Outdoor Learning to the Curriculum

Overcoming Challenges and Teaching Outdoors

Making Sustainability Connections Through Outdoor Learning

Forest Schools: Offering A Fresh Approach To Learning

Helping Childrens’ Wellbeing with Outdoor Learning


Beames, S, Ross, H, & Atencio, M (2009). Taking Excellence Outdoors. B, Scottish Educational Review, Vol. 41, No. 2, Pp. 32-45.

Beames, S., Higgins, P., & Nicol, R. (2012). Learning outside the classroom: Theory and guidelines for practice. New York; London: Routledge.

Blair, D. (2009). The child in the garden: An evaluative review of the benefits of school gardening. The Journal of Environmental Education, 40(2), 15-38.

Baumfield, V., Hall, E., & Wall, K. (2012). Action research in education: Learning through practitioner enquiry. 2. ed. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Christie, B., Beames, S., Higgins, P., Nicol, R., & Ross, H. (2014). Outdoor Education Provision in Scottish Schools. Scottish Educational Review, 46(1), 48-64.

Higgins, P., Loynes, C., Crowther, N., Adventure Education, Scottish Natural Heritage, & Scottish Advisory Panel for Outdoor Education. (1997). A guide for outdoor educators in Scotland. Penrith [England]: Adventure Education.

Institute of Outdoor Learning (2020) About Outdoor Learning. Available at: https://www.outdoor-learning.org/Good-Practice/Research-Resources/About-Outdoor-Learning 

Louv, R (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder: Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books

Van Dijk-Wesselius, Janke E., Van den Berg, Agnes E., Maas, Jolanda, Hovinga, Dieuwke, Clinical Psychology, & Amsterdam Public Health – Mental Health. (2020). Green Schoolyards as Outdoor Learning Environments: Barriers and Solutions as Experienced by Primary School Teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1-16.

Waite, S. (2011). Teaching and learning outside the classroom: Personal values, alternative pedagogies and standards. Education 3-13, 39(1), 65-82.

Waite, S., Bølling, M., & Bentsen, P. (2016). Are we comparing apples and pears?: A conceptual framework for understanding forms of outdoor learning by comparing English Forest Schools and Danish udeskole. Environmental Education Research: ECER Mini

Wistoft, K. (2013). The desire to learn as a kind of love: Gardening, cooking, and passion in outdoor education. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 13(2), 125-14