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Can outdoor learning be part of the solution to unlocking school for more pupils and helping them reintegrate post-lockdown?

Written By: Gemma Goldenberg
18 min read
A review of the evidence on outdoor education

Local authorities in Scotland have been exploring whether outdoor learning could be part of the answer to achieving social distancing and minimising transmission of COVID-19 in schools (Brooks, 2020). Scientists and medical experts are increasingly confident that coronavirus spreads less easily outdoors due to better ventilation; whilst virus-laden particles may be able to travel tens of meters indoors where the virus is more stable (Morowaska and Cao, 2020), outside in the open air, breezes and air currents can quickly disperse plumes of viral particles (Sandhu, 2020). One research paper from the University of Hong Kong states that ‘the transmission of respiratory infections such as SARS-CoV-2 from the infected to the susceptible is an indoor phenomenon.’ (Qian et al., 2020, p. 4) These scientists studied coronavirus outbreaks in China which involved three or more cases. They identified 318 outbreaks, all of which took place in indoor environments. Of 1245 individual cases studied, only two occurred outside (Qian et al., 2020). This paper reports new medical evidence which hasn’t yet been evaluated – at the time of writing, it has not been peer reviewed. However, its possible implications make outdoor learning an important area to explore.

As outdoor areas tend to be larger than indoor classrooms, giving more space for students to spread out, there is greater opportunity for social distancing outdoors. Almost three quarters of the 18,000 school staff who responded to a survey in the TES said that social distancing in UK schools was impossible, with a further 21 per cent saying it would be difficult to implement (Speck, 2020). Preliminary results from 1,714 responses to a recent survey by the Chartered College of Teaching support these findings (Muller & Goldenberg, forthcoming). Less than 5 per cent of respondents thought that social distancing measures could realistically be implemented in early years settings or primary schools, compared to 56 per cent who think that they could be implemented in upper secondary school and FE settings. Moreover, less than 10 per cent thought that safety distances could be adhered to in corridors and only one quarter of respondents thought that safety distances could be respected in classrooms, or that students could wear face masks.

In addition to enabling distancing, outdoor learning may also involve contact with fewer work surfaces and shared objects such as door handles. Some evidence suggests that exposure to UV from sunlight may kill viruses more quickly on surfaces. Bearing this in mind, the risks of transmission may be lower when outdoors, although it should be noted that researchers have highlighted that transmission outside is still possible, especially if people gather and spend a long time close together, without maintaining practices such as regular handwashing (Sandhu, 2020).

Importantly, outdoor learning may be a particularly helpful approach for disadvantaged children who are already thought to have been disproportionately affected by school closures. Some research suggests that vulnerable children, including those from challenging backgrounds (McArdle et al., 2013) those who are perceived to be underachieving (Maynard e al., 2012) and those with challenging behaviour (Roe and Aspinall, 2011) may reap the greatest benefits from natural outdoor play and learning. Therefore, spending more school time outside could potentially help narrow the gap that school closures are thought to have widened.

Although there are some concerns about the training and expertise needed to successfully transition to wholly outdoor provision, prior to the current crisis many local councils in Scotland already had plans in place to expand and promote outdoor learning. Over £850,000 was pledged back in 2018 to explore embedding outdoor learning across the country and make it a defining feature of Scottish early education (Brooks, 2018). Research suggests that Scottish primary schools are increasingly using outdoor space in the school grounds and local area, with secondary schools also keen to develop their outdoor learning provision (Christie et al., 2014). The Scottish Advisory Panel for Outdoor Education (SAPOE) have now called for outdoor learning to be at the heart of planning around school reopenings. They believe it will increase the number of children who can return to school and can help reengage challenging young people as they transition back into school life (SAPOE, 2020).

Outdoor learning is already popular elsewhere around the world, including in New Zealand, Finland, Denmark and Singapore (Burt, 2016) and has been shown to be beneficial for young people in multiple ways. Some of the most robust research evidence supports claims that spending time outdoors in nature benefits children’s physical and mental health, emotional regulation and motor development. There is also good evidence of a link between nature exposure as a child, and pro-environmental attitudes in adulthood (Gill, 2011). Whilst research on the impact of outdoor learning on educational attainment is less common (Fiennes et al., 2015), a systematic review on whether access to green space impacts the mental wellbeing of children concluded that nature access was beneficial for attention, memory, self-discipline and cognitive development, in addition to being associated with better wellbeing and overall health (McCormick, 2017). These findings suggest that outdoor activities may be a useful tool in supporting young people’s mental health, helping to rebuild their self-confidence and social skills post-lockdown while also having a positive impact on learning.

However, drawing generalised conclusions from research on outdoor learning is problematic as approaches to outdoor learning vary substantially. Some research on outdoor learning looks at the impact of short-term interventions whilst other longitudinal studies investigate the benefits of an embedded, long-term outdoor curriculum throughout years of schooling. Outdoor learning can include fieldwork, workshops, school trips, free play, residential visits, gardening and adventurous activities such as mountaineering, as well as a range of other activities. It may also involve teaching more traditional lessons from the national curriculum in an outdoor location on the school grounds. Due to this diversity of approaches, studies also use a wide range of measures and evaluations to determine effects. Some look at the impact on behaviour or character development while others are concerned with academic or health outcomes. In addition, studies are spread across a range of age groups, educational settings and subject areas (Fiennes et al., 2015), making it difficult to replicate findings, make comparisons and synthesise a coherent picture of the effectiveness of outdoor learning as a whole. This means that when drawing on conclusions from meta analyses on outdoor learning, teachers need to be prudent in identifying which outdoor learning approaches and strategies were used in individual studies and which were most effective. Furthermore, the methodological quality of research in this field is often rated as only moderate or low, most commonly because participants were not selected at random, and data presentation and statistical techniques were not carried out appropriately (Becker et al., 2017). Studies often lack control groups and there is a scarcity of research using experimental or quasi-experimental designs. Much of the data is based on small case studies, which although offer some insight, may lack criticality (Waite et al., 2015).

Nevertheless, systematic reviews and meta-analyses of the effectiveness of outdoor learning have found that almost all outdoor learning interventions have a positive effect and that effects are stronger for longer term interventions which provide regular or sustained access to the outdoors (Fiennes et al., 2015). Whilst some positive effects of outdoor learning attenuate over time (they have the strongest effect when measured immediately after the outdoor learning takes place, then reduce when followed up on later), outdoor activities like adventure and bushcraft have been found to have strong effects on self-control, which are sustained over time (Hattie, 1997).

Outdoor learning has gained momentum in the UK in recent years. Along with Scotland, educational policy-makers in Wales have also promoted outdoor learning, and it is incorporated in the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum in England (Maynard and Waters, 2007). However, though outdoor play is more commonplace for children in the Early Years, it is less widespread for older children. Some schools have addressed this by introducing forest school sessions as part of their curriculum. Research has evidenced that regular forest school sessions have a positive impact on knowledge of the natural world (Ridgers et al., 2012) confidence, motivation and concentration (O’Brien, 2008), language and communication skills and physical development (Waite et al., 2015; O’Brien, 2008), social skills and self-control (Gill, 2011) and on managing difficult behaviour (Roe and Aspinal, 2011). Longitudinal studies (McCree et al., 2018) evidence the positive impact the approach has on children’s emotional regulation and wellbeing, and suggest greater academic progress for children taking part in a forest school intervention compared to matched peers receiving a traditional indoor education.

However, forest schooling is a distinct approach which sits within the umbrella of outdoor learning. It has its own values, aims and set of pedagogical principles which can differ from those used in mainstream schools and require specialist training. Therefore, forest schooling is not the same as transferring traditional national curriculum lessons to an outdoor environment. Caution must be taken when applying research findings from forest school projects to outdoor learning more generally. In the current context, where there is unlikely to be the time or resources available to train teachers in the forest school approach, it is more likely that adaptations will be made to a school’s existing curriculum and pedagogy so that more curriculum content can be taught outside. Therefore, it is imperative to look at whether research suggests that outdoor learning is still beneficial, even if specific approaches such as forest schooling are not being used.

In the four-year long ‘Natural Connections Demonstration Project’ (Waite et al., 2016), England’s largest outdoor learning project, 125 schools and over 40,000 pupils were supported to learn in natural outdoor environments. Hub leaders were recruited to support clusters of local schools by helping them access grants for outdoor equipment, meetings, conferences and CPD sessions on outdoor learning, and by carrying out school visits. The majority of schools were engaged in this process for 18 months. Researchers measured time spent outdoors in natural settings at baseline and for two school years afterwards. They found that children spent 60-70 per cent more time outside during the period of support and in the six months afterwards. Teachers taught outdoor lessons across all curriculum areas but most commonly in English, maths, science and PE. Time spent learning maths outside increased most during the lifetime of the project. The project demonstrated strong positive outcomes for both teachers and pupils. 95 per cent of pupils enjoyed their lessons more when they were outdoors and 90 per cent said they felt healthier and happier. Importantly, outdoor learning appears to benefit teachers’ mental health as well as pupils’. 70 per cent of teachers said outdoor learning improved their job satisfaction and 72 per cent reported gains in health and wellbeing.

These results are particularly relevant in the context of the current crisis, which is likely to negatively affect teachers’ and students’ mental health and wellbeing (WHO, 2020; Muller and Goldenberg, 2020). Seventy-nine per cent of teachers taking part in the Natural Connections project also said that teaching outdoors improved their teaching practice, and 92 per cent of teachers reported that pupil engagement was better in outdoor lessons. (Waite et al., 2016). Improved engagement has also been evidenced in experimental studies which found that teachers have to redirect children’s behaviour less often when lessons are taught outdoors, compared to in an indoor control condition (Largo-Wight et al., 2018).

In an American study (Ernst and Stanek, 2006), 50 fifth grade students spent two hours each day learning maths, science and writing at a local wetlands ecosystem. They took part in cross-curricular project based learning, which involved authentic field activities such as studying migration patterns, tagging butterflies, weighing mallards and calculating habitat loss. The project lasted for a full school year and the participating students’ outcomes were compared to a control group of students who completed traditional lessons indoors at school. The project found that children who participated in the outdoor learning project performed significantly better than the control group in standardised state-wide tests in reading and writing. They also scored above the state average in maths assessments. However, it should be noted that this project involved 25 hours per week of support from an environmental education specialist, and pupils also worked alongside other staff from the wetlands learning centre. This specialist support, additional adult contact and a rich and authentic, practical curriculum make it difficult to ascertain whether it is the outdoor aspect of learning that increased academic attainment, or one of the other enriching factors. It is likely to be a combination of all of the above.

Contact with nature is thought to be one of the key benefits of outdoor learning and has been linked to a wide range of cognitive and emotional benefits for children including improved affect and cognition (Bratman et al., 2015), reduced ADHD symptoms (Faber et al., 2011), improved confidence and social skills (Sheldrake et al., 2019) and supporting imaginative play and the development of relationships (Dowdell et al., 2011). Thus, a transition to outdoor learning which takes place in green, natural areas could potentially reap a wide range of benefits for students.

Despite this growing body of evidence supporting the importance of nature exposure in childhood, today’s children are thought to be becoming increasingly disconnected from nature (Natural England, 2009). Even before the current pandemic, children in Britain were watching, on average, more than 17 hours of television a week and spending 20 hours a week online. Eleven-to-15-year olds spend around half of their waking lives on a screen, an increase of 40 per cent over the last decade (Moss, 2012). Meanwhile, a pilot study in 2016 found that 12 per cent of children in the UK had not been in a natural outdoor environment such as a park, forest or beach for over a year, with children from lower income households and ethnic minorities being even less likely to visit natural environments (Hunt et al., 2016). Whilst lockdown may have resulted in some children accessing local nature more often, for others the current context may have reduced nature contact even further as well as potentially increasing screen time. This means that providing access to nature during the school day may be the best way to guarantee that all children have equal opportunities for regular nature contact.

But what about schools who do not have access to green, natural spaces? Can outdoor learning still be beneficial if it takes place in concrete school playgrounds or built up areas? There is a paucity of research which studies outdoor learning in non-natural spaces. The few studies which do exist suggest that nature may affect some cognitive mechanisms more than others. One study found that a nature walk improved children’s performance on an attention task more so than a walk along urban streets, but whether children went on a natural or urban walk did not have an effect on working memory or inhibitory control (the ability to control automatic or impulsive responses) (Schutte et al., 2015). Studies on children with ADHD found that time outdoors in green settings reduced symptoms more than time spent outside in built or concrete settings (Faber-Taylor and Kuo, 2011). Other research suggests that landscape features influence motor development and physical activity play. Children playing in natural environments such as forests showed better motor fitness, balance and coordination than a control group playing in a traditional playground (Fjørtoft, 2004).

These studies suggest that nature is an important factor in the success of outdoor learning. However, some research indicates that nature-based play can take place in any setting by making adaptations and additions to existing outdoor provision. One study of pre-schoolers (aged two to five) looked at the effect of introducing more nature-based play to uninspiring outdoor areas at children’s centres by using natural elements such as sand, water, boulders and plants as sources of play. These were introduced into existing outdoor play areas and children’s play and behaviour was tracked and observed over several months using coded video observations, behavioural mapping, questionnaires and accelerometers. The intervention reported that two weeks after the introduction of natural play materials (measures were taken after this time to eliminate novelty effects), children displayed improved self-confidence, prosocial play and independent play, problem-solving, focus and self-regulation and reduced stress, boredom and injury. The inclusion of loose parts and natural materials also supported creative play (Brussoni et al., 2017). Thus, teachers embarking on increasing their provision for outdoor learning may want to consider how to create an outdoor environment which maximises nature contact. However, it should be noted that as this study lacked a control group, it is difficult to tell which improvements happened as a direct result of the natural play materials and which would have happened anyway as part of typical development as the children got older during the course of the study. Whilst the data collection in this study was limited to a period of five months to try and address this, two-year olds can still develop significantly in the space of five months. In longitudinal studies with children it is especially important to look at how these issues are controlled for.

While many teachers respond very positively to the experience of teaching outside, reporting improved job satisfaction and noticing that pupils are more engaged and behave and concentrate better outdoors (Marchant et al., 2019), there are some potential obstacles. Interviews and observations with teachers revealed that common concerns were worries about safety, not having all children in sight at all times, parental complaints if children’s clothes get wet or dirty, and the need for wet weather gear and space for drying and storage (Maynard and Waters, 2007). Teachers in KS2 reported in a qualitative study that curriculum demands such as testing and the need to evidence work are also barriers to implementing more outdoor learning, and that in order to embed it fully in the curriculum, education inspectorates would need to acknowledge the wide-reaching benefits of outdoor education and accept that these may not be captured by traditional measures (Marchant et al., 2019).

In conclusion, research evidence indicates that outdoor learning is associated with a wide range of potential benefits for pupils and school staff alike. As current evidence suggests that transmission of coronavirus seems more likely to take place indoors (Qian et al, 2020; Morowaska and Cao, 2020) learning outside may provide a safer learning environment for both teachers and pupils. Where it is not possible to teach exclusively outdoors, studies have shown that even smaller ‘doses’ of outdoor time in nature are associated with improvements in pupils’ mental health, learning and behaviour, as well as supporting teacher’s wellbeing. The extent of these benefits is likely to depend on the approaches used and the quality of implementation, this information can be difficult to extrapolate from metanalyses which talk about ‘outdoor learning’ in more general terms. The ‘further reading’ below may help guide and support teachers in finding out more about how to implement greater provision for outdoor learning.


Further reading


Guidance and support for teaching outdoors


The Woodland trust outdoor learning pack

This includes tips for teaching outside, planning support, case studies, cross-curricular activities, assessment ideas and risk assessments.

High Quality Outdoor Learning

This guide explains what outdoor learning is, why it’s important, its key outcomes, and how to evaluate quality and effectiveness.

A range of free outdoor lesson ideas and resources is available on the learning through landscapes website.



Useful websites


Teaching Outdoors





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Brooks L (2018) Outdoor learning grows roots in Scotland as grasp of benefits takes root. The Guardian, 2 April, 2018.

Brussoni M, Ishikawa T, Brunelle S, et al. (2017) Landscapes for play: Effects of an intervention to promote nature-based risky play in early childhood centres. Journal of Environmental Psychology 54: 139–150.

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