It's safe to say I am completely fanatical about outdoor learning, mainly because I can see about a billion benefits and not one drawback.
It's great for children physically because it means they are free to move around - in fact most outdoor learning requires movement. We all know kids who 'can't sit still' but even the more gentle and relaxed children, who are quite happy to sit for long periods of time, would be better served moving their bodies.
It's great for them mentally - the benefits of time outdoors and time in nature are well-documented and I won't waste time repeating them here. It's great for kids educationally, because outdoor learning is hands-on and allows them to see concepts in action, in a relatable space. It also provides a product or outcome, which isn't essential for learning but I certainly find my children like to see they have accomplished something.
It's great for nature and our planet, because children who know about nature and the Earth tend to care about it and want to look after it. You can care about something without any prior knowledge of course, but it's generally accepted the more you know, the greater your interest and the greater your interest, the more you care.
And finally it's great for us parents, whether we are home educating or not, because it gets US outside (see above about myriad of benefits) moving about (ditto) caring about the planet (ditto) and experiencing things alongside our children. Ultimately that connection, those shared experiences and shaped memories, are what parenting is all about.
I freely admit I'm an unschooler at heart. I believe wholeheartedly in child-led and child-driven play and activities, I am almost neurotic about not wanting to 'teach' my children anything because I want them to learn for themselves, and so on.
My ideal outdoor learning scenario would involve my children spilling out into the great outdoors and occupying themselves with some fantastic activity, den-building or stream-damming or tree-climbing or bow and arrow construction. Something wholesome and physical and labour-intensive that also helps them learn valuable lessons spanning social skills and teamwork to maths, science and literacy.
All while I sit and watch.
Certainly some of our time outdoors takes this format. Admittedly Cherry and Violet have never built a shelter, bridge, dam or bow and arrow, but they have climbed plenty of trees. They have also amused themselves for hours, endless hours, with sticks, stones, leaves, feathers, bugs, beetles and other creatures great and small.
But there are other times when we head out and all they seem to want to do is climb up my face asking for snacks, ignoring uneaten sandwiches and apples with one bite taken out of them. During such times, I find it helpful to have an activity or two up my sleeve to give them a bit of structure and direction.
Here's some of what we've been up to lately:
I've been in love with the idea of keeping a nature journal since I read The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady when I wasn't much older than Cherry is now. I adored art at school and it was one of the few classes with which I really engaged. However I became painfully aware that I 'couldn't draw', for this reason art GCSE simply wasn't an option, and I last drew at the age of 14 before dropping art completely. Despite all this I recently felt motivated to buy Keeping A Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and that inspired me to pick up my pencil again.
Unsurprisingly, I draw like a 14 year old who 'can't draw'. Nonetheless I absolutely love drawing and sketching my observations when we are out in nature, and as I do it so much, Cherry and Violet do too. Nature journalling is deeply satisfying and very meditative for me, and hugely useful for them as they learn to focus and observe, to draw what they see, and to identify and name species.
Cherry in particular likes the concept of maps at the moment. It appeals to the side of her that likes structure and order - the side of her that makes unschooling basically impossible for us. More on this another time! This week while Violet was at preschool Cherry and I headed to a beautiful park close to our house to make a map of the local area.
We began with constructing the outline from sticks, this allowed us to do some counting, sorting and basic geometry as we talked about shapes and sides and bunched the sticks into fives to count and sort. Once we'd chosen our shapes (I made a triangle, Cherry a square) we paced out ten steps in five different directions to choose objects to put inside the map.
We ended up with a visual representation of species common to the area, which meant we could talk about what grows in the park, what animals and birds live in and use these plants and trees, how they use the different parts, and generally explore some connections.
I loved this map-making exercise, the idea came from a lovely book called Play The Forest School Way which is full of activities and games for outdoor learning. I am sure we will be visiting it again. Cherry really enjoyed it and got very into it, after initially protesting that she didn't want to be in the park and wanted to go home and snuggle on the sofa, it took very little time for her to become absorbed in her task.
After we'd made our maps we sat and drew them. This was tricky for Cherry as she became frustrated that her drawings were quite crude, so I demonstrated a few techniques to her and labelled her items for her. Again, I struggle with things like this as I am so passionate about them doing things for themselves, but I am having to realise that sometimes she really does want more hands-on help guidance than I am currently offering and it won't shatter her self-esteem for life if I occasionally take a more 'teacherly' role.
Patterns and symmetry
I came across this lovely idea from the wonderful Cathy (Cathy's are just the best, aren't we?!) at NurtureStore. Cathy is an outdoor-loving, home-educating mother who has just set up a new resource called Seasons School, full of great ideas for learning in nature with the flow of the seasons. After seeing one of her posts on Instagram, I had to try this activity straight away and luckily we were in aforementioned National Trust property so I was able to grab everything we needed straight away.
I created a frame with sticks and a pattern on one side using natural objects (leaves, seeds, snail shells etc) and invited Cherry and Violet to complete the patterns, explaining the concept of symmetry and things being the same on both sides.
Here's a disclaimer though. I had hoped they would become very interested and make their own patterns, or patterns for me or one another to complete. However just as I called them over, a fellow mum sat down right next to us and opened a packet of chocolate fingers! That was pretty much the end of my nice little learning activity, Cherry did at least complete her pattern (very quickly) but Violet abandoned hers entirely and chocolate biscuits became the focus instead.
We are sailing
We attend a group held in the most stunning location, in the woods next to a gorgeous, but fairly small, lake. Recently a small bunch of us hired the venue for a day of lake exploring, including sailing little dinghies.
I always think learning through experience can't be beaten. The day itself was wonderful, a friend had brought a larger dingy and I rowed Cherry, Violet and myself out onto the lake to enjoy some blissful tranquility. The children also floated about on little dinghies of their own. Later we sailed leaf and bark boats. I didn't talk explicitly about sinking and floating and the grander educational principles at work, because this really was more of an unschooling experience. The learning was in the doing and the observing. Later on, when we come to discuss such things in more depth, they will have that experience to draw upon.
That's another thing outdoor learning offers - experience. True experience, not a reconstruction or modified, health-and-safety approved imitation, in my view just can't be beaten.