The Outdoor Classroom - learning, creating and exploring

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Taking learning outdoors shouldn’t just be a case of half an hour of rounders or storytime in the sunshine. The outdoor classroom is a world full of opportunities for learning, creating and exploring. In this article we hear how IPC has encouraged schools to take learning outside the classroom.

Building it into your lesson plans so that you can ensure you are meeting your learning goals and achieving rigour is not as difficult as it may first appear. Especially for these teachers at Camps Hill Community Primary School in Stevenage who are using units from the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) to maximise their opportunities for outdoor learning. 

The units they have selected; Plants and Flowers (Early Years) and Flowers and Insects (Years 1 and 2) are just two of 80 different IPC thematic units of work, all child-friendly, modern-day topics designed to appeal and engage children of all abilities. Other units which encourage use of the outdoor classroom include Living Things, Archaeology, Food and Farming, Habitats, Migration, and Weather and Climate. “We believe that children should have real life, practical learning experiences to help them which is why units such as Flowers and Insects work so well,” says Steven Mark, Director of the International Primary Curriculum. “All the IPC units encourage children to work individually and together towards learning goals. It’s important that children can see that they are still learning distinct subject skills such as ICT and geography but set in the context of a big picture theme.”

The independence and interdependence of subjects is a central and powerful concept in the units. In the Flowers and Insects unit, for example, this can be seen in the gradual development of a joint wall display about habitats. This is a crucial factor affecting engagement. “It’s teamwork with a purpose,” says Steven. “Every child plays a vital but different role. This flow of knowledge enables children to become deeply engaged in their learning, especially when that learning is relevant to their own interests and needs.” 

Each IPC unit is cross-curricular; separating yet integrating the foundation subjects and science while enabling links to literacy and numeracy. Learning goals are cross-referenced to meet National Curriculum guidelines and all meet Government recommendations for a more creative yet rigorous approach to the curriculum.

Now take a look at what the children of Camps Hill Community Primary have done to take their learning out of the traditional four walls of the classroom:

IPC Early Years Unit: Plants and Flowers
Reception Teacher: Elmarie Gunther
“Plants and Flowers is a perfect unit for Early Years. Every day is like a wow day with all the interesting activities for the children. I chose to include mini beasts into the units of work because it was so easy to tag it on and show the children which bugs kill plants and which bugs are useful. I love the freedom that the IPC gives me to add my own creativity and ideas while still working within the unit framework. It was lovely to use our outdoors in such a fun, learning-focused way. We managed to do lots of planning and growing including our beans for Jack and the Beanstalk and tubs of daffodils on our patio area that the children could watch day by day. It was very easy to integrate our numeracy into the unit making it very purposeful such as measuring our Christmas trees, counting our seeds, estimating quantities of sand and soil to go into pots, comparing different sizes of plants. There was so much exciting investigation and learning through play, quite a bit of which was outdoors.”

One of our parents has their own role play company. They dress up as lifesize bugs and introduce the whole idea of flowers and growing and gardening to children. We invited them in for our Wow Day (the IPC Entry Point for the unit). The children loved it. They learnt all about a plant’s need for water and sunlight and did their own role play along with Snip and Clip, the life-size bugs, to understand it.

Tracking the growth of flowers in the garden was very exciting for everyone and we saw developmental changes in plants that we would never have appreciated by just looking at pictures in a book or on a computer image.
We transformed our home corner into a garden centre. Every week we introduced something new and different to the garden centre for the children. We had Christmas trees and measured their heights, we planted beans in preparation for our Jack and the Beanstalk role play, we had a flower shop which involved taking orders, making up bouquets, writing messages for the bouquets, delivering the bouquets to the right person within school at the right time and handling the money.
So what do the children have to say?

“I like to do all the stuff in the outside. I like all the nature and growing and exploring.” – Janco, aged 6.
“I like it because we do lots of investigation. I like the same subject for a long time and then I can really understand it. I loved Flowers and Insects. I liked doing it at home like looking on the internet for things we found interesting in class. I liked being outside a lot. My favourite place is the quiet garden.” – Holly, aged 6

Kerry Hutchings is the Nurture Group Teacher and Environmental Education Coordinator at Camps Hill Primary School:
“We have several raised beds in our vegetable plot where we grow lots of things including onions, garlic, herbs, potatoes, carrots, pumpkins and get our small trees growing ready for planting out. We have also created our sculpture garden, a wooded area and our discovery world with pond all of which work really well with the  units.   At first, some of the teachers were wary about going outside but they soon saw how much of an impact it can have on children’s learning.   Many children are very natural and engaged horticulturalists if given the opportunity. We now have parents creating growing areas in their own gardens for their children because they’ve gone home so enthusiastic about their activities in school. Engagement is never a problem when the children are learning outside and their sense of ownership in their growing and nurturing activities is really strong. So much activity goes on here all year round and the children can get involved as much as they want. It’s really fun when they are able to grow, harvest and then see their food being served in the school canteen. Once they were fully grown we used our pumpkins to make pumpkin cake and to roast them with potatoes and carrots.”

IPC Milepost 1 Unit: Flowers and Insects
Year 1 Teacher: Anna Gibbon
“For our Entry Point we went outside for a big insect hunt and tallied up what we found. The children really enjoyed it. When we did our Knowledge Harvest it was clear that the children had quite a good knowledge of the most common flowers and insects but they had very little idea of the relationship between flowers and insects and this was significantly developed during the unit.
"Our big focus inside the classroom was a huge picture that we created of the lifecycle of a caterpillar. This incorporated lots of different activities including leaf printing, string patterns, block printing, symmetrical designs for butterflies, seed dispersal using giant sunflower designs and paperclip sycamore seed models, and identifying various habitats. The picture and the learning surrounding it just kept developing and developing. But one of the best things about this unit is that we spent so much time outdoors. We used the copse area on several occasions for observation, we went outside to experience seed dispersal, we explored our hedgerows and planned our new pond area which involved some outside investigation as well as ICT where we used a 3D programme to create our environments.

"This unit also included investigation of the lifecycle of a bumble bee and creating a new species of flower which drew on our new knowledge of seed dispersal and plant growth.

"I really enjoyed teaching this unit. Getting outside so much made it very real for the children and because we had so much time to spend on the theme, we were able to really develop some deep understanding of the links between flowers and insects. There’s no limit to what you can do.”
Hilary Cliff, Head Teacher, Camps Hill Community School, Stevenage
“Introducing the International Primary Curriculum (which Camps Hill did in September 2006) was a definite step in our plan to build learning power within the school. I really liked the sound of it. Planning really annoys me; the energy has to be in the delivery and here was a curriculum that could help all my teachers achieve that. We’re not located in a privileged area; about 60% of our children are from vulnerable and brittle homes. My goal is to develop life-long learning, to develop aspirations and to instil perseverance amongst all our children. The IPC is helping us towards that goal. Being topic-based their learning makes sense to them. Their engagement in their learning now is huge.

"The outdoors has always been a crucial part of our school and the IPC units such as Flowers and Insects and Plants and Flowers are helping my teachers to realise that it can be a very powerful learning environment as well as a place for exercise and play.”