Group of young children with their teacher learning in an outside space

Could outdoor learning be the answer to social distancing?

With some pupils returning to school, how can teachers maintain social distancing and improve hygiene to keep pupils safe?

Some of the answers lie in outdoor learning, a practice that is already the norm in many Hammersmith & Fulham schools. The concept could help headteachers develop plans for their schools to meet government and NHS guidance.

Teachers at Randolph Beresford early years centre in Australia Road, White City, have been leading the way in outdoor learning for many years. They believe that outdoor environments can be very therapeutic for children, as well as help promote social distancing.

“We have a large playground and we decided to turn the far end into a forest,” said Michele Barrett, executive headteacher at Randolph Beresford and Vanessa Nursery in Shepherds Bush.

“We removed the path and tarmac, put a fence up, and threw lots of grass seeds down – our plan is to grow this across the entire garden.”

Randolph Beresford is also the first school in the borough to become an official ‘forest school’ – this means they have a trained practitioner on site that facilitates learner-led exploration and discovery outdoors.

Michele added: “We know our children will want to go outside – and it is much safer outside. They have more space. They get excited and want to be there.

“If you take learning outside, there is also lots of fresh air which helps stops the spreading of the coronavirus.”

Small group of children with their teacher in a field
There are many benefits to learning outdoors

Benefits

While specialist outdoor nurseries, such as Randolph, are well accustomed to the needs of children spending all day outdoors, other establishments in the borough are also taking steps to adapt their practice to enable more time to spend in gardens and playgrounds.

At St Mary’s Primary school in Masbro Road, West Kensington, they have adopted a different approach to outdoor learning – one that’s common in Finland – by moving tables outside so children can do their school work in the fresh air.

“We find that children’s development in the early years is massively enhanced when they are playing and learning outside,” said Rosie Friel, acting assistant headteacher at St Mary’s.

“If schools can work outside, as they do in Finland, I think it would be amazing for the children.”

Rosie says another benefit of being outside is that children’s vocabulary is greatly improved.

“Inside, where it is quieter, children are less confident to speak. But outside, they have more freedom and confidence to talk and ask questions,” she said.

“When they are outside, they can be as loud as they want and this helps develop their vocabulary so much faster.”

There are other benefits to learning outdoors. It helps young people understand more about ecology and our natural world, which bolsters their learning about the environment and tackling climate change. Miles Coverdale primary school in Coverdale Road, Shepherds Bush, and Fulham Cross Academy Trust in Kingwood Road, are leading the way in adapting their curriculum to focusing on climate change.

School garden

Outdoor learning isn’t exclusive to the primary schools in H&F. Five years ago, Hammersmith Academy in Cathnor Road, Shepherds Bush, invested in a school garden in order to teach students about nature.

And the school has utilised the lockdown to work alongside the Bees & Refugees project to install three bee hives on the school premises.

Some 10,000 to 15,000 bees were installed in each hive and videos were shared with students so they could be a part of the process virtually.

Gary Kynaston, headteacher at the academy, said: “We have very been at the forefront of utilising nature as an important contribution to a well-rounded education, and the addition of bees is very much a natural progression.”

Developing and utilising our outdoor space is integral for schools, especially in London, where some students lack outdoor space at home.

Urban and wise

Local charity Urbanwise.London works with schools across H&F to offer a range of outdoor educational sessions, such as visiting local markets and going on river walks.

Moya O’Hara, director at Urbanwise, praised all the different approaches that schools in the area have taken to encourage more outdoor learning within their settings.

“In September, we will be able to come to schools and work with them in their playground and their local parks – we can fit in with their requirements.”

This approach to learning could be the fresh approach that schools need to keep their staff and pupils safe during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Large class of school children lined up on an outdoor activity
Developing and utilising our outdoor space is integral for schools, especially in London

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