Time Out

There is a global movement to get our children outside. Teachers worldwide agree that time to play outdoors throughout the day is critical for children to reach their full potential and it seems even our questionable weather is not putting them off!

“We do all sorts of science experiments outside. The children absolutely love exploring how changes in the weather impact the garden,” says Sarah Sanger, Founder and Principal at The Woodentops Nurseries where the children attend forest school once a week on Clapham Common and teachers set up garden activities daily to stimulate the imagination.

Amy Gemmell, Head of EYFS at Hornsby House School, adds other benefits of outdoor learning for the school’s youngest children: “Those children who are fidgety, prone to shouting out and have lesser developed fine and gross motor control skills, particularly in children aged seven and below who are still developing their basic senses and physical skills, thrive in an environment where they can move, smell, touch explore and ‘do’.

“Learning outside works wonders to develop the child who is averse to taking risks or identifying hazards. I always feel immense pride when after our first few visits to Wandsworth Common where I encourage all of the children to trek through the bushes and under the trees, they quickly work out how to avoid nettle stings and bramble bushes.

“While not always the case, those children who typically score well in school assessments are often the children who are frightened of getting dirty wellies, taking risks and adapting to a changing environment, as opposed to another child whose ‘can do’ attitude does not score highly in a test, but allows them to dip their toes in a particularly muddy puddle or test out a shaky looking branch with their foot while holding a minibeast which they intend to identify. The best example of conflict resolution I have seen is while watching two young children negotiating over the best home for a snail!”

Ben Freeman, Head of Finton House, cites other advantages: “Extra-curricular clubs, trips and workshops enrich pupils’ learning and teach them respect for each other and the world around them. These invaluable experiences develop their social and cultural awareness outside of the classroom.”

Although outdoor learning has been a staple for early years education for some time, more and more of our primary and secondary schools are incorporating it into school life too. One such school is Thomas’s London Day Schools which has pledged to take up to 20% of its lessons outside.

Over the last decade, there has been a growing body of research demonstrating how outdoor learning and playing improves cognitive functioning, reduces student (and teacher) stress, lowers the symptoms of attention deficit disorder, raises test scores, improves creativity and social skills and most importantly ignites a sense of wonder. At its core, the great outdoors makes children happy and happy children thrive.

“Our children love to discover new things every day, whether it’s flowers on the strawberry plants or worms in the soil. The garden ignites a real thirst for knowledge and exploration,” says Adam Woodcraft, Early Years Co-ordinator at Dolphin School where the children take great pride and ownership in growing and maintaining the garden themselves.

Time and time again, learning outdoors has been proved to result in an enthusiasm for learning and better problem-solving skills. For pupils at Christ Church CofE Primary school, Battersea, the first primary school in London to be awarded the Learning Outside the Classroom gold accreditation, outdoor learning is a daily feature. The school boasts four gardens, one of which was co-designed by Chelsea gold medal winner, Cleve West, together with the children and the teachers. When asked why they like learning outside, one Year 6 student said, “It’s more interesting learning outside, so it’s more memorable.” Another said, “You learn resilience in the garden. When I plant something, and it doesn’t grow, I try again and I nurture it, till it does.”

And this is precisely why Head Teacher, Colette Morris is so passionate about outdoor learning, “I am interested in growing people who are well adjusted to life and know how to lead good lives as human beings, and that involves nature. It has to involve nature – we are not made of concrete.”


Inspiring and encouraging creativity in children and young people is crucially important in these pressurised times. Creative pursuits allow pupils the opportunity to explore and experiment outside the structured world of academic learning and this exploration fosters key qualities including bravery and resilience. To be creative, pupils must conquer worries about how things will turn out and they must inevitably face moments when their efforts fall flat.

Creativity Day at King’s earlier this year gave all pupils access to nearly 50 live and recorded sessions, discussing ideas and approaches to creative outputs or giving masterclasses on particular skills.

The relevance of the initiative was clearly evident. Many pupils reported that their creative activity was ‘relaxing’, ‘interesting’ or made a positive impact on their mood. Others realised that applying imagination and creativity when facing problems could help them to innovate successful solutions across all areas of life.

Source: King’s College School, Wimbledon

Similarly, at Liberty Woodland primary and secondary forest school where 95% of the teaching takes place outside, project- based learning means that it’s not how much content children can retain from a textbook or sitting at a desk, but rather how well they can apply their knowledge, work in teams, self-regulate and innovate. “Our children have spent their school lives collaborating and creating. If you look at the top five characteristics that employers are looking for in Fortune 500 jobs, our kids are already doing it every day. They are set up for success,” says Head, Leanna Barratt.

There is a misconception that outside is for playing and inside is for learning and never the twain shall meet, but in reality, learning outdoors enhances any teaching done in the classroom. You only need to consider the abundance of vocabulary in nature which can otherwise be overlooked.

At Parsons Green Prep, Principal Tim Cannell is in the process of redesigning the reception playground to maximise opportunities for exploring, discovering and learning, renaming the new playground, the ‘outdoor classroom’.

“Inside or outside, the children are always learning something whether it’s sand play or water play or something else. There should be no distinction between the two,” says Cannell. He adds, “Children learn lots about capacity and volume and maths just from being outside.”

The school is boldly doing away with set break times for reception children too, enabling pupils to flow freely between the inside and outside classrooms through child- led learning, supported by their teachers to encourage the discipline of self-regulation.

Indeed, outdoor learning is just as important for older students too, says John Layng, Assistant Head Co-Curricular at Emanuel School, “When sixth formers are doing biology in the garden, they are doing what real scientists do. Rather than studying the theory on a white board or a screen, they are out collecting samples, collecting data and doing statistical analysis of the different organisms they find.”


It is well worth encouraging your child to participate in co-curricular activities, as they provide children with fantastic experiences and opportunities to flourish as individuals, beyond the formal classroom.

At Alleyn’s, we see the co-curriculum as an essential part of our holistic education. We provide numerous clubs and societies – from football to Fish Tank Club – for all pupils to pursue personal interests and develop new skills across a swathe of physical, artistic, cultural and recreational activities.

A successful co-curriculum encourages children to challenge themselves in different situations and helps develop greater personal confidence to draw upon in any scenario. Where pupils can influence the co-curriculum, or help run activities, as they are able to at Alleyn’s, the additional responsibility develops their sense of commitment and enhances their leadership skills.

Source: Alleyn’s School

In an age dominated by screens, it goes without saying that outdoor play results in more active and healthier children. “During the Covid 19 pandemic, opportunities for camps and group activities were stripped away and as such access to active learning was limited as kids were sadly forced indoors,” says Julie Tyler, Camp Director at Camp Suisse which runs winter and summer activity camps in Switzerland offering a range of life enriching activities from climbing mountains to crossing glaciers.

Outdoor learning and play enhance children’s independence, resilience, agility and ability to assess and take risks within a managed environment, characteristics that help children navigate through life especially in this post-pandemic era.

“A social residential environment can contribute to the personal development of our youngsters by fostering self-belief, and self confidence,” adds Tyler.

And while some schools have cut down on play in a bid to catch up on ‘lost learning’, Wimbledon High School has extended its day by half an hour for the younger years, specifically for play, “Play and social downtime have been the focus of this additional time to help children process the experiences of the past year,” says Claire Boyd, Head of Juniors.

Being outside isn’t just good for the body but also for the mind and soul. When outdoor play is incorporated into school life, children can concentrate better and learn more. It also helps children feel calmer and able to process their day, their thoughts and their surroundings. “Being in the garden gives our children a chance to engage with nature, to slow down a bit and appreciate what’s around them,” says Emanuel’s Layng.

With that sense of appreciation, comes empathy, respect and a connection to the earth which ignites a desire to protect it. That’s why environmentalism is a core subject right up there with maths and literacy at Liberty Woodland School, why Christ Church is stimulating the local bee population with its bee boxes and why sixth formers at Emanuel are inviting local primary students from nearby state schools to their garden to teach them about biodiversity, the food chain and food webs.


“It was the sweetest, most mysterious looking place anyone could imagine” Frances Hodgson Burnett from The Secret Garden

  • Gift children the freedom to be led by nature itself – follow that bee or earthworm or whatever presents itself – no constraints!
  • Encourage children to sow, plant, hoe, water, get messy, run free in nature
  • Support them as they pause, observe, touch, smile, ask questions
  • Encourage the joy inter- generationally – gardens and flowers help us experience the interconnectivity of life
  • Accepting diversity in nature helps us understand human diversity. Help them see that nature accepts us as we are
  • Encourage children to understand that Earth’s story is our story too and that growth, life and death are part of it all
  • Inspire children to treat Earth as if our lives depend on it and to think about future generations.

Source: Dolphin School

But out of the classroom learning isn’t just about flora and fauna, it’s also about learning new skills away from textbooks and screens. Emma Smith of Emma’s Kitchen teaches students going off to university how to cook in her home on Broomwood Road. “Many of these young people are incredibly bright and are going off to study subjects like astrophysics at university, but they’ve never chopped an onion!” Knowing where your food is from, managing your time, socialising around a table are all life skills. Not to mention the opportunity to forge relationships and learn from a diverse range of people outside of the classroom, says Amy Shone, Director at Let’s Act Drama School.

“Mixing with a wide variety of peers from different social backgrounds is so important for children and after school clubs give them a fantastic opportunity to meet others from outside of their usual bubble.”

Whether it’s learning in the great outdoors, in the community, on excursions or at co-curricular clubs, out of the classroom learning is not just an optional extra, it is essential for raising the global citizens of tomorrow.

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