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.

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