New environments, routines and expectations after lockdown
As pupils settle into the new school year after months out of the classroom environment, it’s good to remember just how vital outdoor physical and social activity is in creating a positive educational experience in which all pupils can concentrate and achieve excellent learning outcomes.
One approach I find encourages pupils to forget their back-to-school worries, is to take learning outside as much as possible during the Autumn Term so that everyone can enjoy the warm rays of the September sunshine. Children naturally and enthusiastically engage with outdoor learning and find the freedom to discover and explore exciting.
Providing opportunities for active social play within the school grounds is an ideal and easy way to allow children to reconnect and catch up after their long-time apart. Active, outside play reintroduces the children gently to the more structured regime of school, allowing them to re-acclimatise to the school’s rules and expectations. It grants them the time to adjust their minds and bodies, after having had such an extensive period of free time during the holidays.
I have found that outdoor climbing equipment, like attractive Play Towers and Treetops, provide the perfect way to challenge and re-engage your children through physical, social play. Children can use excess energy, stretch their legs, chat and catch up, whilst seated on top of the world.
Climbing Towers provide an ideal place for pupils to rediscover and strengthen their relationships with friends. It’s certainly much more fun and effective way to share holiday news, rather than sitting in a circle and waiting for your turn to talk, where interaction and participation are low. I prefer outdoor fun, and so do my class! Permitting learners to explore and play with the freedom to talk to each other, allows them to share their holiday experiences or catch up with each other, facilitating social reconnection; interaction and participation are high as a result.
Support Mental Health and Well-being
Another advantage to active play outdoors is that children are more likely to share their true feelings and to reveal their state of mind through body language, attitudes and reactions whilst engaged in play. It gives the observing adults the chance to verify that a child is feeling happy and well, in an unobtrusive way. Any unusual behaviour, either over-energetic or subdued, can be noted and followed up sensitively. Once back in class, teachers can then help and support pupils effectively on their unique and personal learning journeys.
Exercising through climbing, swinging, reaching, balancing and stretching intrinsically improves children’s health and fitness, as well as enhancing their well-being. Having a break from the classroom allows the mind and body to take a different pathway, giving it the opportunity to rest. Space away from academic study enables children to refocus on school activities, leading to greater motivation and concentration levels when the children return to class.
Shh… Don’t tell anyone, but I always feel better too after taking my class outside! I understand the benefits of learning together in the fresh air and have seen the positive effect a change of place and direction has had in refocusing young and old minds alike. I’ve witnessed first-hand how my class’s demeanour and attitudes clearly change after a bout of fun, outdoor play. Active adventure boosts children’s well-being by easing pupil’s stress, tension and anxiety levels, as it creates a safe zone where they can escape from the pressures of the world they live in.
Improve Bone and Muscle Health
Outdoor learning also boosts vital Vitamin D Levels in children which is essential for good bone and muscle health. Luckily our bodies can create Vitamin D when direct sunlight touches our skin when we’re outdoors, which is excellent news as it is hard to get enough of this vital vitamin from food alone.
The NHS states:
“Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones. In the UK, we get most of our Vitamin D from sunlight exposure from around late March/early April to the end of September.”
So, with September on the horizon and the children heading back to school, we have a crucial last chance for children to be safely exposed to as much sunlight as possible (whilst taking recommended precautions to guard against the dangers of prolonged exposure to the sun’s rays). Unfortunately, the sun’s rays through the winter months in the UK, do not contain enough UVB radiation during the winter (October to early March) for our skin to be able to make Vitamin D.
The NHS clarifies:
“Most people can make enough vitamin D from being out in the sun daily for short periods with their forearms, hands or lower legs uncovered and without sunscreen from late March or early April to the end of September, especially from 11 am to 3 pm.”
So short visits outside this September are a great way to ensure your class benefits from the goodness of those final rays of the summer sun. Children with sufficient Vitamin D levels usually suffer both less dental problems and bone pain, helping them to join in and enjoy school activities with vigour; healthy children can concentrate and participate more fully back in class.
Increase Physical Health and Fitness
It is important to get children up and active, especially after a long holiday, when some children may have been relatively static. The NHS shares:
“It is thought excessive sitting slows the metabolism – which affects our ability to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, and metabolise fat – and may cause weaker muscles and bones.”
So, in a school, where sitting at tables for extensive periods is common, it can be beneficial both mentally and physically to get up and move around for a while. Luckily, Adventure Trails and climbing logs such as the Adventure Forest create the perfect environment for children to exercise their muscles and get re-energised. Schoolscapes offers a range of inspirational playground equipment, ensuring that dynamic play can be accessible to everyone.
The NHS also recommends reducing the sitting time as “Studies have linked excessive sitting with being overweight and obese, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and early death.”
Maximise Brain Power
All teachers wish for classrooms brimming with brains primed and ready for learning. Research reveals the many ways that exercise can stimulate and improve brainpower. The Guardian shares:
“A wave of studies exploring the unexpected links between mental and bodily fitness is emerging from labs. This research may… help you choose the best ways to prepare physically for mental challenges such as exams, interviews and creative projects.”
From increasing memory, boosting concentration, enhancing creativity and improving mental health, research reveals the extensive benefits that physical exercise offers our brains. So, through simple active playground exercise on a regular basis, teachers can effectively boost their children’s brainpower and problem-solving skills.
Inspire Creative Thinking
Many creative personalities have claimed that being active outdoors gives wings to the imagination. Psychologists support this view describing how exercise augments divergent thinking: the idea-generating, free-roaming component of creative thought.
Adventure play stimulates the imagination and creativity, as children start to re-enact scenarios through their dramatic play; they may pretend that they are on top of the highest mountain or traversing an inhospitable planet! The ability to create mental imagery benefits children’s storytelling and story writing back in the classroom, where children can let their imaginations soar. If teachers incorporate active, outdoor, dramatic play into their storytelling brainstorming sessions, then this can help children to internalise the storyline.
I successfully tried this out in a history session, when children pretended the Play Tower was Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, stuck in the ice. They then had to transport their expedition gear across the Adventure Trail, teaching them about team-work, perseverance and developing logical and critical thinking. It certainly made the children start to appreciate how hard it must have been for past adventurers to transport their tonnes of gear across formidable landscapes, without the help of modern-day equipment! The creative writing that resulted from it was truly inspiring! The fresh air and exercise had engaged their brains!
Create Engaged Learners
So active, social play is not only enjoyable and good for their health, it has a knock-on effect on children’s behaviour and attitudes to learning back in class. Children who have had the regular chance to be active and to move will find it easier to sit and concentrate, when required, once back indoors. Engaged, interested learners not only achieve better but create a more cohesive and effective learning environment for all the children to benefit from.
For some children with SEND, physically sitting still or extended periods of concentration are particularly hard to endure. For many leaners being continually expected to sit at a table may be stressful, lead to frustration and result in unacceptable behaviour and cause low self-esteem. Whereas active play and learning can give rise to children feeling successful and in control of their achievements. They can set, test and extend their own limits, without feeling confined and restricted.
Risky play itself improves children’s well-being. It gives pupils the chance to experiment, explore and learn through real-life, hands-on experience. Allowing risk-taking, enables pupils to feel trusted to set and extend their own personal limits, at a pace that they feel comfortable with. The attractive and challenging Adventure Forest provides the ideal environment for children to develop both determination and resilience, both important, transferrable life skills. I have witnessed how the freedom to climb and play has allowed children to become more competent and resolute, by allowing pupils the time to practice, explore and develop their own limitations.
Risky play is considered by outdoor educators to play a very important role in a child’s individual development journey; Sussex University is currently studying and measuring how risky play boosts children’s well-being. Academics from the University wished to investigate and record how risk-taking helps children manage anxieties and build self-esteem. Dr Kathryn Lester is leading the long-term study, which is measuring the emotional well-being of parents and children before and after play sessions. I personally have seen how controlled risk-taking has supported children to become more confident and independent learners, with the ability to reason and solve problems logically.
Discover & Learn Outdoors
So, don’t forget whilst you’re timetabling, planning and getting back into school mode, to plan in some valuable opportunities for physical, outdoor play for your class; I guarantee you’ll feel the positive effects through improved attitudes to learning and increased levels of achievement. Share with colleagues the important benefits of stimulating, outdoor fun and how it can be planned into the timetable as an integral, important part of each week. Despite the growing academic pressures we all feel, keep at the front of your mind just how important physical activity is in supporting creating a positive classroom environment in which all pupils can concentrate and achieve their very best. The good news is £320 million is allocated to the PE & Sport Premium and all Schoolscapes’ equipment that increases physical activity, meets the criteria for spending this funding. Have a look for inspiration and discover how a play space can be transformed!
Good luck to all those pupils and teachers heading ‘back-to-school’ this September. It’s not what you teach, it’s how you teach that will make all the difference to your children. Happy, healthy, motivated children will be more receptive to learning. So, what are you waiting for? I’ve discovered first-hand that children love outdoor play, whatever the weather, throughout the seasons, and with less sitting and more action, boosted energy levels really inspire amazing teaching and learning! Outdoor invigoration of the mind and body empowers children to believe in themselves and be motivated, eager learners in the classroom.