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Primary school children outside with a magnifying glass

Embedding outdoor learning in a primary school

Take inspiration from the story of a primary school in Penzance that is transforming their outdoor space into a nature-rich haven for learning and play – with the help of the Eden Project team. 

From tired playground to nature-rich play environment

'Sir, why are we playing in the car park... when we’ve got all this?' 

It was this very simple question, asked by one of the pupils at Alverton Community Primary School, that set the headteacher thinking about how the school really could be making so much more of its school grounds – and encouraged him to get in touch with us to facilitate a new vision and master plan.

We revisited the site in 2019 to see just how far they’d come since 2014. 

New green spaces

While the Cornish school had enviable school grounds with pockets of mature woodland and expansive views across Mount’s Bay, the site had become ‘tired’ and areas fenced off to ease the flow of people. Like many schools, the playgrounds were really only used during play times in separate age groups, supervised by lunchtime monitors. But today the school looks very different…  

The entrance of the school is transformed, and fences have been removed and moved to embrace natural, green areas. The woodland and field are open all year round, and there are welly boot banks everywhere – because everyone has a pair of wellies. 

Quote 1

Parents of Year 3 and 5

“ We love the sense of adventure and freedom the children are experiencing. ”

A culture of play

Children used to play in age-specific playground, but now these spaces are themed by activity instead. Woodland Rangers (Year 3 and 4 pupils) create and manage Explorer Rucksacks with bug hunting and investigation kits, and lunchtime supervisors are now ‘play leaders’, inspiring and guiding collaborative play. Staff have noticed that children are more creative in their play and confident in managing risks themselves – which they transfer to their learning in the classroom.

Quote 2

Teacher John Dawe

“ I have lost count of the number of days described by children as the 'best day ever'. ”

Outdoor learning every day

All children and classes now spend time outdoors each week, learning in different curriculum areas, and nursery and Early Years children especially are now outdoors for a significant part of each school day. Outdoor learning has become part of the planning process for the school’s immersive, topic-based approach to the curriculum.

The magic of Daisy

The school has taken on an additional teaching assistant, Daisy, to further integrate the development of the grounds into practical everyday life, to entice and support teachers to get outside more, inspire children in their nature-based play, and get the children deeply involved in their environment. 

Awards and Ofsted success

Since starting the project, the school has won two Healthy School Awards, and has had praise from Ofsted. During their inspection in 2018 the report celebrated the direct link between outdoor learning and the confidence and success of disadvantaged pupils, and the standards in phonics and (particularly boys’) writing. The outdoor learning really has worked its magic!

How to embed outdoor learning in your school

Our team – with expertise in learning, play, and landscape design – worked with Alverton to empower the school community to make the changes they wanted to see. But most importantly, we set about helping the school to embed outdoor learning in their culture, so that they could continue the process of change once we had gone. 

Read on for our advice on what makes this type of project really work well in schools. And get in touch with us if you’d like our help to redesign your school grounds.

1. Get ready

School ‘readiness’ for a project like this needs several magic ingredients…

Positive leadership

It’s essential that someone brings vibrant, enthusiastic and clear leadership to:

  • Set the culture of outdoor learning and nature-based play as a non-negotiable, integral part of everyday school life. In Alverton children spend significant amounts of the day outdoors, and teachers use it to cover the curriculum.  
  • Enable things to happen by removing barriers. Often these are historical, cultural and social, rather than physical barriers such as fences and walls – for example attitudes towards things like risk, mud and weather.
  • Empower the whole school team. Everyone was involved in Alverton, from lunchtime supervisors and caretakers to staff, children, and parents.
  • Write it into the School Development Plan and into planning and monitoring processes. Embedding outdoor learning is an ongoing journey, and can only evolve as time goes on.

A confident and inspired team

Work with everyone at all levels to ensure that the school team is:

  • Supported with clear expectations, time, energy and permission to try something new.
  • Empowered through training – with new ideas, skills and confidence to re-imagine what’s possible.
  • Buoyed with positive ‘team spirit’, an appetite for change and capacity to ‘have a go’.

Whole school community oomph

Think beyond staff, there’s a whole school community to draw on:

  • Rally the troops – get the school governors and PTA onside and actively involved
  • Involve and consult with everyone: and try to focus on what people want to be able to do, rather than what they want to have.
  • Celebrate success and share achievements. This will help spur people on. 

2. Create a master plan

It might sound overwhelming, but it’s this master plan that enables the school to ‘find a way in to’ begin a big project. The master plan:

  • Sets ambitions and provides a ‘road map’ for the school grounds and their use. 
  • Can access funding; it's a powerful document.
  • Can be a ‘go to’ point of reference for any ideas or changes as you go along. 

3. Give it time

Don’t expect a quick fix, but enjoy the journey. 

  • Start with some easy wins, like the Big Dig Days we did with teachers, parents and the Eden team, to transform a small part of your space quickly and visibly, and gain momentum.
  • Be realistic that to embed outdoor learning into the school so that it seeps into the nooks, crannies and crevices of the school to become ‘just what we do and who we are’ could take around three years.
  • Deeply embedding outdoor learning into the school like this will make it much more likely to survive the shifting sands of education where headteachers and teachers move on, political boundaries shift, budgets change, management systems and organisational structures morph.
  • Be absolutely confident that this is a good thing for your children, and this will take you far!

Let us help you on the journey

Inspired by what you’ve read? Let us help you along the journey of transforming the culture of outdoor learning in your own school. We have expertise in curriculum, play, outdoor learning, community consultation and school landscape design, and we’ve experience in embedding outdoor learning into schools just like yours. See how we can help.