This Friday, June 20th is Empty Classroom Day. You’d expect us to be fans of all things outdoors – and we are. We would like every day to have an opportunity for taking learning outside the classroom, but one special day is a good way to kick start the process. Having worked with plenty of teachers and teaching assistants who admit to feeling nervous about abandoning their classrooms and taking learning outside, we were delighted when Juliet Robertson’s new book arrived on our desks. It is published today and, in my opinion there should be one in every staffroom in the country. I wish there had been when I had started teaching all those years ago. I learnt as I went along and had a few nightmare lessons along the way.
Juliet is a former headteacher and champion of learning outside the classroom. I first came across her ideas in her popular education-focused blog . Her book, which is part manual – to give teachers ideas for moving learning outside and part manifesto- making the case for outdoor learning, is firmly rooted in her own experience. It’s written in an accessible way which will make sense to anyone who works with primary school aged children. Importantly it suggests an approach which is low cost and understands the realities of teaching classes of thirty or so children outdoors with no additional help. This handbook will lead you from the idea that working with classes in the open air is a good idea through the planning stages to the first tentative sessions in your outdoor classroom. It will help you engender in your class a spirit of adventure and exploration, a sense of reflection and caring for their environment, even if it is a ‘concrete jungle’. It will also help you build towards a time when outdoor learning is fully embedded in the curriculum. I loved it.
We like to get a sense of the story behind any books we feature. Here’s what Juliet had to say.
What are your strongest memories from your own school days?
Between the ages of 7 and 10 I lived in Ambleside. Every lunch time we got to play in the local park just beside the school. We had 1.5h lunch times and they were great for free play. There’s a big rock outcrop in the centre of the park. Not surprisingly we were all a fit bunch of children.
What made you start teaching outside and what is the best and most challenging experience you’ve had with children outside the classroom.
I started teaching outside before inside! When I was 18 I had a gap year in the middle of university (as I was a 16yr old school leaver). As a volunteer I helped set up and run a WATCH wildlife club at Brockhole National Park headquarters with one of the education officers. I did this because I knew nothing about nature and knew I needed to learn. Children are always the best teachers…
The most challenging experience I’ve had with children outside the classroom was when I was just 20 years old. I was working in Philadelphia at an urban environmental education centre. The permanent staff worker was ill so I took 12 boys aged 11-14 down town to the Natural History Museum on my own. The kids had never been in a museum before and didn’t know how to behave so they ran around, completely mad and out of control before jumping into the fountains outside within half an hour of being in the museum. Then to cap it all, I lost two of them in the rush hour in the subway station on the way home which was situated within a large shopping mall. It took half an hour to find them. I sent the others out in pairs to look and come back in different directions.
Why is it worth teaching outdoors?
There’s two main reasons. Firstly almost all children benefit from the experience in ways beyond the obvious achievement of success criteria. Relationships are different outside and it’s an opportunity for children and adults to get to know each other in ways that they would not get to experience indoors. There is also something subtle, yet powerful about working in a natural space, if this is possible whether this is a beach or woodland or somewhere else.
Next, once children and adults are used to working outside, then it is generally a less stressful environment. Everyone is more physically active as a general rule. Also everyone tends to feel better after time outside which can positively impact on a class back indoors too.
What do you hope to achieve through writing the book?
I hope to make learning outside more doable for class teachers. There are few books available which are written by teachers for teachers on working outside with a big class of children all with different needs and capabilities. At the moment a lot of attention has been given to Forest School yet this is quite a specific approach which relies on a higher adult to child ratio than what is normally available in a school. Also there’s very little ideas for those teachers who work in concrete jungles. Play and playtimes have also been largely ignored yet in Scotland the play sector have been huge allies and proponents of learning outdoors.
The other aim was to provide a book which could complement my blog. The book is more cohesive than my blog. Along with my courses which provide a practical illustration of the concepts I talk about, it’s a strong package of support which I would have welcomed 20 years ago! My courses also have big handouts full of more specific guidance on key aspects of learning outdoors.
What the best piece of advice would you give to a teacher who meets resistance to their desire to do more outdoor learning?
It’s all about engaging in positive communication with others. I strongly believe that for every one person that is being difficult there is at least one person who will be equally supportive. So find these people. Mindset and determination matter more than anything else. As Richard Bach said in his book, “Illusions” – “Argue for your limitations and sure enough they are yours.” So don’t use other people or situations as an excuse for not going outside, use them as a springboard into finding creative ways of getting out.
Celebrate Empty Classroom Day tomorrow with a resolution to start taking your classes outside more.
We’re signing up schools now to become Our Flower Patch members from September. Reading Juliet’s book over the Summer holidays will help get you ready to get outside.