Great outdoors: Meet the teachers taking lessons beyond the classroom

Advocates say it’s safer, nurtures creativity and promotes better engagement. But can the approach hope to survive the Irish winter?

English and philosophy teacher Patrick Murtagh with his second year students in the grounds of Temple Carrig School in Greystones, Co Wicklow. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

English and philosophy teacher Patrick Murtagh with his second year students in the grounds of Temple Carrig School in Greystones, Co Wicklow. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

The sense of freedom that the second year English students at Temple Carrig School in Greystones, Co Wicklow, exude in their outdoor class is palpable. Their task today is to recite lines of the Maya Angelou poem Still I Rise.

Most of the 20 students are sitting on logs (a few of the boys have climbed a tree) listening to small groups reciting lines – some quietly, others more dramatically – from the American poet and civil rights activist. Their teacher, Patrick Murtagh, stands back to observe.

“It’s more relaxed outside and easier to have conversations. There is less pressure to look in one direction towards a board. It puts you in a better mood for the rest of the day,” says student Leah Fallon.

“It’s good to be out in the fresh air,” adds Daire Murphy. “Even before Covid I think it’s good to have class outside, and the school should keep it up after Covid.”

All the students agree that taking their masks off and being able to breathe outdoor air is one of the big attractions of having class outside. Since returning to school, classroom windows and doors are left open so the air can circulate, but this means the noise also circulates from other classrooms.

Murtagh, an English and philosophy teacher, is one of a number of teachers at Temple Carrig School in Greystones who are bringing their students outdoors.

“At the start of the year the principal, Alan Cox, encouraged teachers to hold classes outdoors. Some of the students were a little bit shell-shocked to be back in school at seven months, and bringing them outdoors so they can take their masks off makes it a bit more normal,” says Murtagh.

The Covid-19 social distancing restrictions in classrooms suddenly make teaching outdoors a more interesting prospect.

“Teachers can’t move around the classroom so when you have a class outside it’s easier to move around small groups and maintain social distancing. I usually start the class indoors – maybe listen to an audio book, read a poem and then move outside to discuss it or have them perform verses in groups or act out a scene from Romeo and Juliet,” says Murtagh.

Facial expressions

He says one of the big advantages of teaching students outdoors is that when they take their masks off you can see their facial expressions.

“It’s hard to tell if students understand – especially the younger students because they might be reluctant to say they don’t understand – when they have their masks on.

“But you can get real engagement outside. They are more active and enthusiastic and can teach each other, but they can get a bit carried away too so I have to remind them to keep their distance from each other,” he adds.

Temple Carrig School is lucky enough to have plenty of outdoor space away from main roads so up to five teachers could reasonably hold their class outside at the same time – using the amphitheatre with logs as seating, tiered seating at the front of the school and several areas of grass – without classes interrupting each other.

Since the beginning of term classes in English, religion, classical studies, science, philosophy, agricultural science and art have been held outdoors.

The unpredictable Irish weather means that teachers will have to maintain a level of spontaneity in their approach, willing to move outdoors when the weather is amenable and to return indoors if it rains.

Ranelagh Multi-Denominational National School in Dublin has been bringing pupils from senior infants, second and third class to the woodland area behind the nearby Mount Pleasant Tennis Club and to the Iveagh Gardens off Harcourt St in all weathers for almost 10 years.

“We bring half the class from 8.30am until 12 one day a week for eight weeks and the other half the next morning. The pupils arrive in school in hiking boots or wellingtons with waterproofs, a change of clothes and their lunch,” says Caroline Carroll, childcare manager at Ranelagh Multi-Denominational National School and a member of the Irish Forest School Association.

Class curriculum

The school’s involvement in outdoor education began in 2011 when the former principal – also a member of the Irish Forest School Association – introduced the concept to parents. Parts of the class curriculum are adapted to teaching outdoors.

Carroll explains: “The children make rafts using stick measurements and see if they sink or float in the fountain in Iveagh Gardens. They learn to use knives for whittling. They learn rope skills and how to put up the tarpaulin [for shelter] if it rains. They also adopt a tree and watch it over time.”

She says teaching young children outdoors helps build their resilience and social skills.

An English class can seek inspiration for a poem, a maths class can focus on geometry and a nature class can study seasonal changes

“Most of them love it. They can’t wait for wet days to put up the tarps and sit under them. We also have sit spots so children can take time out by themselves if they need it. They learn how to problem-solve and because many of the tasks are led by them, the teacher can observe children and sometimes see them in a different light than when they are in the classroom.”

Each group of children is accompanied by three adults which includes the class teacher and the classroom assistant. Carroll says new parents are shown a video of what children do in the outdoor classes, and teachers keep records of how each child learns during these outdoor learning sessions.

The practice of bringing children outdoors to learn is not new and some research points to specific benefits of learning outdoors that can’t be replicated indoors.

Advocates of outdoor learning say it nurtures creativity, makes learning more engaging and relevant and can reduce behavioural problems and improve attendance. One study found that the main advantage of the outdoor classroom is that it allows children to move more freely which in and of itself promotes learning.

Pandemic

In the US there has been a strong interest in outdoor classrooms during the Covid-19 pandemic. An article in the New York Times reminded readers that during outbreaks of tuberculosis in the early 20th century, children were taught on roofs of schools, disused ferries and in classrooms in repurposed brick buildings, with open windows to avoid the spread of infection.

During the winter months these children wore what were called Eskimo sitting bags to keep warm and heated soap stones to keep their feet warm.

Some educationalists already keen on children having class time in the outdoors have jumped on the Covid-19 bandwagon to promote their ideas even further,fuelled by studies that found there is a lower risk of catching the coronavirus in open-air settings.

One such group, Childhood by Nature, has gathered together resources for teachers on how to put school yards, local parks, playgrounds or town squares to good use – weather permitting – to teach children outdoors.

FIVE TIPS ON HOLDING CLASSES OUTSIDE

1. Go outdoors for a reason: Before you bring your class outdoors consider what the space can add to the lesson. For example, an English class can seek inspiration for a poem, a maths class can focus on geometry and a nature class can study seasonal changes.

2. Simplicity: Keep instructions simple enough for students to follow, with flexible goals they can achieve.

3. Ask the right big questions. For example, rather than asking students what the weather is like, ask them what it was like earlier and what it will be like later and why.

4. Integrate everything. Use the outdoors to explore cross-curricular knowledge and skills.

5. Think long-term. Experience the outdoors in a way that will provide life-long learning. For example, walk the perimeter of the local park and work out what percentage of the space is needed for the outdoor activity.

Adapted from Out Teach: Teaching Outside during Covid-19 www.ednc.org

November 5th, 2020, is designated Outdoor Classroom Day (outdoorclassroomday.com) Learning Through Landscapes (ltl.org.uk) supports teachers with a wide range of outdoor lessons in everything from storytelling to cloud gazing to creating autumn leaf displays and active outdoor mathematics.

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