Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Outdoor Learning Skills - Scratchers & Diggers - An Endangered Species? (Part 1)

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"Craig's work is full of individual ideas and that different way of looking which begins to alter your perspective in a consistent and lasting way." Steve Biddulph

There is no doubt that being outdoors, running, exploring and playing in natural environments is wonderfully beneficial for children - common sense really - especially given the impact of media saturation and the indoor lifestyles many children have.

But is school the place to have to remedy another problem?

It is difficult enough for children who have not had the opportunities for essential early years' play development - and the challenges in terms of schooling that this presents, are serious enough. But add to this the fact that so few children have a deep and ongoing relationship with nature and clearly, schools are being expected to manage another situation, not of their making.

The kind of focus and concentration children need for much of their school work depends on a healthy ability to dive deeply into their play; into imaginary worlds where a narrative is improvised and developed, where animals, tress and the rocks can all speak and where anything can become anything else, all in a moment of suggestion.

Without this basis in their development, all sorts of problems arise - not least, adjusting the content and delivery of school 'work' to try and engage children better. A key example is to increase the role of screen media, which can only add to, rather than solve the problem. In fact, many children find the use of the smart board boring. Typically, we try to solve this by investing even more in teacher training.

A new emphasis on Outdoor Learning is also a response to our latest understanding of the 'state of childhood.'  And there are some pretty  wild claims about what it can achieve.  And especially in a school context.

What is sure, is that if there is any benefit, it happens when the children's experience of Nature is ongoing, regular and deep. More football is not Outdoor Learning!

The question for schools is, "What is a deep experience of Nature for a child?" But more accurately, "What is a deep school-based experience of Nature for a child?" 

It is a little easier for the private sector where the day may run from 8.00am - 6.00pm but in the State primary sector, 9.00am - 3.00pm,  with an expected 23 1/2 hours taught, does not leave much time for genuine play, exploration or outdoor projects. No sooner does a child dive into the play than s/he hears the bell. In fact, you only need to spend a little time in the playgrounds of our schools to see that with the constant whistle blown for children to 'freeze' mid-play, in order for the play attendants to deal with something that has arisen, there is almost no opportunity for the kind of experience they really need.

Look around the edges of the playground for evidence of the quiet worker, a little like the almost-extinct-endangered-species, to see how s/he is searching for that hidden, out-of-sight, quiet place to get on with the job. Note the scratchings in the hardened pile of building earth, left behind after 'building improvements.' The 'diggers' have been at work.

Schools are about school work - teaching & learning. And this is where we have to look to find the connection between the children, their need for play and our teaching.

We have to be sensitive to the ever-changing subtleties of their real play, observing carefully, especially as it is so often fleeting in our pressured school day, forget about the domination of the school playing field by the boys - and use the driving inspirations of that play as critical, experiential elements in the devlopment of our lessons themes.

Friday, 8 October 2010

No Money? It's Sometimes A Blessing!

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·            Schools are communities – Social health is everything!
·            Learning is central – Everything must serve the education.
·            School is school – Family is family.
·            We are all part of the world – Look after the real needs of your teachers.
·            Maintain independence.
·            Balance is key – Plan the network – Connect the dots.
·            Parents care about the little things – Whose shoes are they?
·            Notice where people walk – Let the rest grow wild.
·            Educate for integrity not product – Plant seeds carefully.
·            Never forget, they will be the adults – What will they need then?

These are all about intention, about organisation and vision. They don't cost money but they will create a real ocean swell for positive change. Sometimes, to depend on money to buy your way into progress, leads you away from a better path.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

What's The Biggest Bugbear? Oh Dear, Discipline!

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Great word - bugbear!

1580s, a sort of demon in the form of a bear that eats small children, also "object of dread" (whether real or not), from bug (n.) + bear (n)

As I go from school to school I come across the same thing with so many teachers - They love the idea of outdoor learning, love the whole thing - except actually going outside. I used to think it was because of what they rather shame-facedly confided - It's uncomfortable outdoors; the weather's cold, rainy, too hot, too cold, too windy, not windy enough!

But I have my doubts about such admissions. I actually think it is to do with feeling insecure in a variety of ways and the greatest of these is the feeling that Johnny and Adam and Susan too are going to tear away into the distance and throw themselves from the nearest cliff onto the road below, where a bus full of Ofsted inspectors is going to run them over and finally finish them off - with poor Ms White torn somewhere between shouting for help from the top of the cliff and helping Maylene and her best friend Walter finally squeeze into their wellies all the way back at the classroom!

Is that along the lines of it? I ask. Yes, that more or less describes it, I hear.

Everything works absolutely fine so long as you act accordingly. And the way to do that is to give very clear messages that you are in control and can be relied upon at all times.  But not by telling them!Shrieking at the top of your voice as they run over the crest in front of you, that you are in charge and they'd better come back only tells them that you are indeed, not in control at all. The 'messages' need to be practical, convincing and simple. They'll love you for it.

So what about the 'discipline' question then?

No matter how much some of us like to run about and jump up and down with the children, you can't get away from the fact that you are the adult - fun lover or not. In the eyes of the children they expect you to be the one responsible, the leader not the led.

5 Pointers
  1. Be the first out of the door. Be the first into the Outdoor learning Classroom, into the forest clearing. Make it your space into which you welcome them.
  2. Have things ready. This does the same thing as being there first. It shows whose space it is. It's a trritorial statement and one which the children will inconsciously respect. They are honoured by being welcomed into it.
  3. Think of a group of children outside as being like dandelion clock seeds blowing in the wind. If you want to control them you have to catch them as they come to rest. You need to create resting moments when you can catch them. This is why people have em run way and then back (ina thousand variations) It creates a rhythm of expansion - away and contraction - back and then at the point of contraction you have one of those resting moments.  They run up to you with eager anticipation. There's your chance. Show them how to sit, where to sit. Bring a moment of culture into the nature.
  4. Use games to capture their interest. What's a game? Routine, rhythm, rules, boundaries and a journey. Every game is a journey - a metaphor for something deep in our nature as people. Every journey is leading somewhere and children love a game for the security and the reassurance of it. We are getting somewhere.The game leads you to another moment where you can catch them again. Being the master of playing with the rhythm of the class life like this develops deep trust in you by the children. It eliminates the squabbling, bickering and immature, petty competitions of the group. It allows the group to flow and leads them back into being able to play - to explore, to discover and to work.
  5. Listen to the sound of their work and their play. The tones and the volumes will tell you when it is time to draw them in again. Do it before you need to. Practise the return. Reward them for their good work. Send them off again. Listen. Managing a group of children is a musical thing. It has to do with structure and with rhythm. You get a sense for it. You get to trust it. And the children learn it and trust it like a song. Like a well loved game.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Here's A Few Questions For You!

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Question 1. What are you looking for at this site?

Question 2. How did you get here? i.e. Where did you come from?

Question 3. Did you find what you were looking for?

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Oh No...Not Another School Nature Trail!

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"Craig's work is full of individual ideas and that different way of looking which begins to alter your perspective in a consistent and lasting way." Steve Biddulph

On an Outdoor Learning CPD day I held last week for teachers, one of the people attending told me about her school's plans to create a Nature Trail in the woody copse they have on the school grounds. It would have paths, name-signs on the trees and suggestions for learning activities.
Another spoke about how they had developed their playground to include some natural elements - a large balancing log, some painted, nature pictures on the hard surfaces and a bird table.

How do we help children engage with Nature?

Children need to really throw themselves into a relationship with nature. They need to play with nature, not only in it. The natural outdoors has extremely positive effects on children's play and on their learning. And natural or nature play is the key - play, where the focus is on the relationship with nature - not on the game or on the learning. Engaging with nature at an early age in a continuing relationship builds enormous benefits for the child and also for our environment. Learning to love nature is critical for all and everything involved.

Children need to be able to relate freely. They need to play. They need to build dens, catch frogs and search for insects, scatter ants and be mesmerised by bees and stinging insects. They need to create bridges over creeks, swing in trees, dig traps and redirect puddles into streams. They need to hear the quiet and the birdsong, the sound of the wind in the leaves, feel the warmth of the sun beam and the chill of frosty crystals in the winter.

This level of participation is not encouraged by the nature trail - facillitated by the worksheet to maintain attention; nor is it by the balancing log in the hard surface playground.

You'll find Outdoor Learning & other Resources at my site:


Saturday, 2 October 2010

What does Outdoor Learning have to do with Engagement?

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"I listened to your CD, cheering occasionally - utterly agreeing with every word." Sue Palmer

When I first formed Attitude Matters, I knew several things about children' engagement. One of them was that in order to engage, they needed a foundation that allowed them to do so. In fact you would think that such a foundation was natural - and indeed it is - or rather was!

For 25 years I have worked with parents to increase their children's chances of engaging in their learning. I have tried to help them understand that the lifestyle they choose for their children will determine those chances.

Engagement has to do with the whole child.

When I talk about a child's healthy engagement, I mean of the whole child - artistically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically - to name just a few! And the foundation for this is the child's senses. They need development, their perceptions need to be cared for and refined.

Without the depth of experience a child's range of opportunities for engagement become limited. They begin to rely on an immature grasp of their world. We find lots of children, for example, having difficulty being able to empathise as they get older.

Why do they find it hard to cross that emotional bridge between themselves and another? It can be the case that young children miss out on really important developing experiences. Perhaps they did not have the chance to play with, love and care for young animals; they did not spend time playing in a fully imaginative world where everything spoke to everything else - where the flowers spoke to Teddy and where Teddy spoke to the toy truck.

So often they may also have missed out on the riches of being with nature - of playing, discovering, exploring - of being a part of that network of bio-diversity where everything really does intertwine and speak to everything else. They need a constant, deep and growing relationship with nature and with their loved ones, building a rich network of experiences upon which their inner world is founded.

The lifestyle we choose for our children determines the extent to which they can engage. 

There are key elements in our children's experience which help them to engage in their learning positively. One of these is providing them with rich opprtunities to be with nature, to be outdoors. They need to play outdoors, explore outdoors and love outdoors. The lifestyle we choose for our children determines the extent to which they can engage. 


Sunday, 26 September 2010

Losing the Ability to Play?

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When young children are fully absorbed, either in an observation of something - an ant on the path, a leaf in the wind, in their imaginary play, mimicking and re-enacting their day to day lives, maybe even of stories they know - their senses are open and committed and their interest complete - they are "engaged."

This experience of play is so healthy for a young child. If we interrupt it unnecessarily and regularly, we teach them to be superficial in their play and ultimately, their work.

Engagement Learning is the basis for the development of empathy & integrity in children

A great deal of material and study is now devoted to the observation that children feel more and more alienated - from the world around them, their families, other children in school, from learning, from a sense of interest, enthusiasm and so on.

The list of pressures affecting childhood have been clearly described in work such as "Toxic Childhood" Sue Palmer and "Last Child in the Woods" Richard Louv. But there is another aspect to the problem I have come to recognise through my own work: Children appear to be changing in the way they interact with the world and people around them; they don't play like we might expect and even hope for.

It often goes un-noticed because of the pace of our lifestyles and the escalating business of children's activities. The reasons are many, but the fact that they are less able to be fully "engaged" in their play means that we have children growing up with an increasingly tenuous connection to real experience.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

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"I listened to your CD, cheering occasionally - utterly agreeing with every word." Sue Palmer

Discover more at

Friday, 24 September 2010

A Child's Play is a Child's Work

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There is a view that, because children are drawn to screens and screen activity, we can increase their engagement by making the content of the screen world function as a learning tool.

Is this engagement? Are children active in that process?

We know that activity, self generated, is the key to learning, the key to developing the intricate and healthy network of connections that forms the basis of our knowledge.

The key outcome from the all-party parliamentary group on scientific research in learning and education, ‘Brain-science in the Classroom’ was that knowledge is created though experience. There are no brain modules for the executive functioning which creates higher levels of understanding. They develop as a result of the network itself.

Experience builds connections.

Without the appropriate experience a child builds a virtual knowledge - a skyscraper of facts and images taken from the screen; far less from books anymore - but when from books, often very little more than a scanning of the pictures and the odd caption. We lead children to believe they know so much more than they do.
Through experience children engage and when they engage they build rich, sensory networks. In this way, over time a child develops more and more complex understandings - all based on initial sensory engagement with the world.

The more natural the play - the greater the engagement.

Discover a lot more at You can also get a free CD, "Engagement Learning - A Child's Work" if you are UK based. It spells out what engagement learning is and what you can do to help your child really engage in everything they do.

Engagement Learning

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Attitude Matters is an education consultancy, focusing on the foundations of character in children. Goleman said, "There is an old fashioned word for the body of skills that emotional intelligence represents – character.”In order to develop character, children need to be engaged in their lives and in their learning.
I lead CPD days and courses for teachers in character development, outdoor learning, integrated curricula and engagement. I work with parents and run Heads UP, an outdoor, forest-based programme for children.
Here is an article, previously published in The Playground, an East Sussex magazine - a typical scenario in the forest on a Heads UP day.

Lighting the Fires of Enthusiasm

Little flames caught, reaching hungrily for the tiny twig tepee arching over them. In a moment the wee kindling shelter had burnt into ashes, the flickering dying into embers. “Quick, quick, Get more tinder,” came the shout. One child scrambled into the trees near by searching for the dry twigs they had used to start their little camp fire. Another busily shredded a handful of paper thin birch bark, that oily, resinous bark which takes a flame so readily. Kneeling over their almost lost fire, they carefully placed the fuel over the coals, blowing them up into those tiny flames once more. “Quick, quick,” came the shout again. “More kindling. More tinder.”

And so the cycle goes around and around. I have watched this process countless times working with children in the forest. Isn’t it so like everything else with which we struggle? Round and round we run, ever more anxiously, trying to keep the “little flames alight,” feeding them frantically with the same old stuff. It takes a leap in awareness and confidence to begin placing heavier sticks upon the little fire, breaking out of the cycle of desperately maintaining what you already have to move onwards.

Adventure activities are always a great thing to do with kids. They are exciting, demanding, challenging and there is a terrific sense of achievement that follows. But the activity becomes something much more for the growing child when it is not just about skill development, not simply another challenge ticked off the must-do list.

Children are born with almost all of the 100 billion neurons we will ever have. “After birth the physical development of the brain is largely a result of the growth of connections between these brain cells.” Learning is about inter-connectivity, joining-up-the-dots, some might say. In fact the connections that are well used in our lives become ever stronger. “Good lessons are about helping kids to see connections and making conceptual leaps.” 

When we take the experiences children have had and connect them to deeper, cultural ideas, we help them to understand something about real life, maybe not for the present but for when it may matter even more. Rushing about, managing to support a tiny ever hungrier little fire and not being able to move on to the next level should not simply remain as a memory. It can become much more, about life in general and how we deal with it. 

As parents and teachers, we need to oversee this hugely important learning process. We need to draw the connections, at first in story-like and gentle ways, planting seeds which will develop independently over time as each child explores a widening world.

Could there be a better way of teaching the values of never giving up, of self belief, the “I can” attitude? You see, education is not only about lighting the flames of enthusiasm, courage and imagination. It’s about building them, step by step into heart-felt fires to last a life-time.