Researchers report children who were exposed to outdoor education had improvements in concentration


Outdoor learning has had a positive impact on both children and staff at a Swansea primary school, boosting their wellbeing and pupils’ attitudes to learning.

This was demonstrated following the school’s engagement with HAPPEN, a primary school network led by a team of researchers at Swansea University, who have published their research in PLOS One.

The school inspection body Estyn has just reported on the school – Crwys Primary – awarding an excellent judgment for wellbeing and attitudes to learning and citing the school’s commitment to outdoor learning as an example for others across Wales to follow.

HAPPEN is a network of primary schools led by Swansea University experts in public health, wellbeing and physical fitness aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of children in Wales. Research shows that healthier and happier children do better in school and that education is an important determinant of future health.

The HAPPEN team has been working with a number of schools across Wales. Crwys primary school in Three Crosses, Swansea was one of the schools involved in their research on outdoor learning. Crwys is a small school of around 145 pupils. The school does not have any green space of its own but makes use of some nearby woodland.

All pupils at Crwys spend a minimum of half a day in the woodland enjoying the great outdoors every week throughout the year. They take the curriculum outside, enjoying lessons such as science, art, and maths.

The HAPPEN team carried out interviews and focus groups with pupils and staff and found that:

  • Pupils’ wellbeing, their enjoyment of school and their attitudes to learning have all improved
  • There was also a positive impact on staff wellbeing, with teachers reporting increased job satisfaction: one said that it’s “just what I came into teaching for”.

The findings are timely and globally relevant as opportunities for children to access the natural environment are diminishing. Children are spending less time outside due to concerns over safety, traffic, crime, and parental worries. Modern environments have reduced amounts of open green spaces too, while technology has increased children’s sedentary time.

The Estyn report on Crwys Primary said:

“Outdoor learning has had a positive impact on pupil wellbeing and their attitudes to learning. The school has seen a rise in attendance and academic standards have also improved.

Education is not just about lessons within the four walls of a classroom. The outdoor environment encourages skills such asproblem solving and negotiating riskwhich are important for child development.

“School staff are proud advocates of the benefits of outdoor learning on pupils’ wellbeing. They have worked closely with Swansea University on a project which has proved that outdoor learning improves pupils’ health and wellbeing”

Emily Marchant from the HAPPEN team at Swansea University who led the outdoor learning research said:

“Our findings add to the evidence that just an hour or two of outdoor learning every week engages children, improves their well-being and increases teachers’ job satisfaction.”

Education is not just about lessons within the four walls of a classroom. The outdoor environment encourages skills such as problem-solving and negotiating risks which are important for child development.

If we want our children to have opportunities where “you don’t even feel like you’re actually learning, you just feel like you are on an adventure” and teachers to “be those people we are, not robots that it felt like we should be”, we need to change the way we think about school lessons.

Crwys Primary is showing the way in Wales, as Estyn has underlined. We would welcome other schools in Wales to our free HAPPEN network, so they too can make positive changes in their school to make their pupils healthier and happier.

A mutual relationship between health, wellbeing and education exists. Evidence demonstrates that healthier children have higher educational attainment[1]. This association is mirrored, with research showing the social impact of education on health outcomes throughout the life course[1].

Thus, investing in a child’s learning has potential in maximising future achievement, employment prospects and health and wellbeing during adulthood. The school setting provides an opportunity to deliver a curriculum that engages children to reach their academic potential and define their future health outcomes and socio-economic pathway, reducing inequalities in health and education.

However, with schools currently facing a multitude of external, top-down pressures on educational attainment and health and wellbeing inequalities[2], there is a need for learning experiences that simultaneously improve health, wellbeing and school engagement whilst addressing curriculum needs. The opportunity to provide high-quality teaching experiences to engage children in learning is not solely restricted to the classroom setting [3].

Taking learning outside the classroom and into the natural environment provides the opportunity for an integrated, cross-curricular approach to achieving education aims[4]. Furthermore, research has demonstrated the positive impact of immersion in nature on well-being, creativity, brain function and mood[5], highlighting the potential of the outdoors in engaging children with learning.

Despite this, opportunities for children to access the natural environment are diminishing and children are spending less time outdoors due to parental concerns over safety, traffic and crime[6]. Modern environments have observed a reduction in open green spaces, in addition to reliance on technology and increased sedentary time providing competition against children’s choice to engage with the outdoors[7].

Therefore, the school setting holds arguably the greatest responsibility and potential in providing children with access to natural environments through the school grounds and teaching activities.

Outdoor learning encompasses a spectrum of curricular school activities that take place in the natural environment within school grounds or in the context of the local area. This ranges from broad nature-based learning such as Forest Schools, residential trips and outdoor adventure, to learning programmes tailored specifically to the core curriculum.

This huge variation in the practice and understanding of outdoor learning means that the evidence base, whilst growing, shows huge variability in terms of the duration and type of outdoor learning offered, the target population involved and the outcome measures assessed[6].

In recent years, curriculum-based outdoor learning delivered by teachers in school grounds or the local area has gained momentum and is receiving attention from education experts and political figures alike[7].

This growing movement of outdoor learning is reflected in recent government investments including the Natural Connections project[8] and Nature Friendly Schools[9] which aim to support schools in increasing children’s opportunities to learn outside the classroom in the school grounds and local environment.

The Natural Connections project, delivered in 125 schools across southwest England demonstrated a positive impact of learning in the natural environment on pupils’ enjoyment of lessons, connection to nature, social skills, engagement with learning, health and wellbeing, behaviour and attainment. Indeed, there is a large body of literature highlighting the benefits to exposure with the natural environment and outdoor learning on children’s physical, mental, social and emotional health[3,1012].

This is particularly important as research suggests children’s wellbeing and mental health is declining and regular physical activity and engaging with the outdoors could potentially improve health, wellbeing and education outcomes[1316]. The cognitive benefits of contact with nature have also been identified, including improved concentration, awareness, reasoning, creativity, imagination and cognitive functioning[17,18].

Furthermore, the outdoor environment encourages skills such as problem solving and risk taking which are important behaviours for child development[19]. Therefore, delivering lessons in the outdoor environment can enrich learning and engagement, widen skill development and improve health, wellbeing and enjoyment in school[20].

Outdoor learning shows great potential as a tool for health promotion and improving educational outcomes and a key component for the development of children[21]. Efforts to integrate outdoor learning into the curriculum have been witnessed alongside curriculum reform across the United Kingdom[22].

In 2010, Wales introduced the Foundation Phase curriculum stage for ages 3–7, with a vision of encouraging ‘children to be creative and imaginative, and make learning more enjoyable and effective’[23].

This curriculum framework facilitates experiential learning through outdoor learning. However, despite its recognition at policy level and government recognition of the benefits of outdoor learning in enhancing children’s social, physical, creative, cultural and personal development[24], outdoor learning provision is still underutilised in primary schools, particularly beyond the early years[25].

Although research has demonstrated its ability to engage all ages and applicability across the whole school, there is a marked decline in outdoor learning experiences between the early years and the later stages of primary education[3,26], In addition, conflict exists between the wider benefits to education attributed to outdoor learning, and the lack of measurement and value placed upon these by education inspectorates.

As with many school interventions, the implementation of outdoor learning within the curriculum has not come without its challenges and a number of barriers prevent schools from implementing regular outdoor learning in the older primary school age groups.

Common barriers cited by teachers and headteachers include; existing curriculum pressure, the high demand on teachers’ time, teachers’ confidence and self-efficacy, safety, cost and access to resources and training[2731]. Teachers have also expressed a conflict between the autonomy in choosing outdoor learning as a teaching method yet lacking acknowledgment and support from colleagues and the wider school network[32].

Recommendations to overcome barriers and integrate outdoor learning within the school setting include providing schools with a clear evidence base[27]. Ultimately, despite research highlighting the benefits and policy recognising the value of outdoor learning, the wider uptake of outdoor learning within school practice requires training and resources designed to support teachers and school-wide culture change[33].

Whilst research regarding the benefits of outdoor learning has examined cognitive, affective, interpersonal, social, physical health and behavioural impacts[11], there is a lack of research exploring the acceptability and mechanisms behind how outdoor learning can be effectively implemented on a regular basis by primary schools[34].

Furthermore, much of the literature aiming to gain the viewpoint of stakeholders has focussed solely on teachers and outdoor specialist staff [29,30,35,36], highlighting the lack of experiences cited by pupils. If we are to create both meaningful education experiences in the outdoor environment, and ensure effective implementation of school-based programmes, it is essential to gain the viewpoint of not only those at the forefront of the delivery, but those who are recipients of such interventions, the pupils.

Thus, the aim of this study was to examine the acceptability of an outdoor learning programme and to explore headteachers, teachers and pupils’ views and experiences of outdoor learning within the key stage two (KS2) curriculum (pupils aged 9–11). In addition, we examine the process of implementation to offer case study evidence to other schools who would like to offer outdoor learning to KS2 pupils.

Swansea University
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