Natural Connections Case Study – Beechwood Primary School

Report to Beechwood Primary School on the Natural Connections case-study visit on 20th March 2015

1. Introduction

We would like to extend our warm thanks to the staff and students across the Southernway Federation (Beechwood Primary School and Oakwood Primary School) for making us so welcome and giving us an informative, interesting and visit. This document is a summary of our findings of the visit to Beechwood.

2. Interviewees

During the visit we spoke with staff including:

  • Head of School at Beechwood
  • Four teachers from Beechwood and Oakwood schools
  • A group of pupils from Years 5 and 6
  • Two members of the PTFA at Beechwood

The purpose of the interviews and visit was to understand the extent and the range of activities associated with learning outside the classroom in the natural environment (LINE) and their impact on staff and students. Our findings are set out below.

3. School approach to LINE

Interviewees reported the following key points:

  • The Federation’s three year overview incorporates LINE in a way that has clear links to the curriculum.
  • LINE is used for school improvement. It provides real examples to extend classroom learning and to create environmental awareness and responsibility. This enables children to get the best experience possible from their learning opportunities.
  • Beechwood and Oakwood Primary Schools work as closely together on LINE development and activities as they do on teaching and learning in the Federation as a whole.
  • The school approach is to develop relationships with external providers rather than commissioning services. These include staff from Plymouth City Council, Groundwork and Devon Wildlife Trust.
  • The school joined the Natural Connections project to add credibility to the existing ethos of the school around learning outside: ‘It’s been brilliant to have a big organisation backing and legitimising this project’. The schools have benefitted from the links made through the project, with the Federation’s partner schools drawing up LINE action plans which are then linked to the Federation’s environment plan.

We don’t separate it [learning outdoors]. I never wanted that. I wanted it to be part of what we do. It’s innate. So, whatever subject you’re teaching, ‘Can you do it outside?’ (member of staff)

4. Overview of LINE activity

The school has a range of spaces in its grounds providing opportunities for learning outdoors. These include a chicken coop and run, a wildlife area, school field with a trim trail, rough grassland, covered and open hard surfaced play areas, new planting beds for every year group and ‘maths sheds’ with resources. There are plans for an outdoor ‘classroom’.

The school makes use of the nearby Southway Woods Local Nature Reserve, particularly for Forest School activities. There are several Forest School practitioners among the staff.

Active efforts are made to provide LINE opportunities across the curriculum and teachers work to ensure that the outcomes from these LINE experiences are clear for pupils and staff. Outcomes are monitored through curriculum plans. Examples of curriculum opportunities include

  • African Drumming with an experienced drummer to make the most of external acoustics
  • Understanding the relative distance between planets by marking them out in the playground
  • Caring for the school chickens
  • Problem based real-life learning activities in maths
  • Using the outdoors as an inspiration for creative writing
  • A dedicated Early Years outdoor area.

LINE is also used for extra-curricular activities including the school wildlife club.

The link with the local secondary school as part of the Natural Connections project was felt to be particularly successful. Projects include Duke of Edinburgh award students in Year 11 building hedgehog houses and a ‘friendship bench’ at Beechwood.

We know that children actually learn better when they’re fully engrossed in something; when they’re living it and experiencing something [through learning outdoors] more than at just one level. (member of staff)

5. Staff views on LINE implementation

Staff interviewed were positive about all aspects of teaching and learning that included LINE and felt this was the case across the school

  • Interviewed staff reported that there was initially a little bit of teacher reluctance to participate in LINE  but that this is no longer the case since staff have seen the children’s enjoyment, engagement and outcomes.
  • One staff member felt their own teaching was enhanced through LINE. This is because it is good for professional development because it tests us as teachers… to think about how … can we take that [lesson] outside … making that link [with the curriculum]’.
  • Personal enjoyment of the outdoors was cited as a reason for teaching outdoors and encouraging children to enjoy what it can offer them.

6. Challenges to LINE

The school approach to challenges was positive, and most challenges were described in terms of how they have been solved or managed. These included:

  • An early perception that LINE would require extra work and time, particularly to make curriculum links, has been managed through the provision of resources (e.g. maths support cards). This challenge was tackled through combining subjects so freeing up curricular time: By having a creative approach to curriculum planning, you can create more time, not less.
  • Early Years staff see a challenge in maintaining LINE activity as children move into KS1 and KS2 with a focus on literacy and numeracy.
  • Providing evidence for learning outdoors without books to record progress can be a challenge. This is managed in maths with a scrapbook kept by every class in the Federation, which is shared among staff for moderation.
  • Confidence in developing ideas for LINE was felt to be tied to confidence in specific curriculum areas, teaching outdoors and potential concerns around behaviour. Staff reported that since seeing the benefits that working outside can bring, and as children get used to working outside, teacher confidence increases.

7. Impact of LINE

This section briefly reports staff views on the impact of LINE on staff and pupils.

Attainment

The standards at the school generally are very good. Greater use of outdoor learning was introduced at the same time as standards improved and so it was felt that the contribution of outdoor learning to the rise in standards is clear: Childrens learning has improved because of outdoor learning experiences.

Enjoyment and Engagement

Being outdoors allows children to apply the skills they have learned in ‘real-life’ situations: ‘You can see the enjoyment of it, it is unbelievable. They [pupils] have constant smiles on their faces! And those children that do find [engaging with school] difficult often excel because it is more hands-on, its interactive, it allows them to do things themselves, promotes their independence a lot more. Its a confidence-builder, and its just fun.

Self-confidence and resilience

Improvements in self-confidence and resilience were also seen as benefits. One example provided was that children learning outside have more opportunity to discuss work with each other, often choosing to do this in mixed ability groups: you saw the higher ability children speaking to the lower ability children and boosting their confidence or talking them through how to do it. Interviewees reported that children are open to this kind of peer support that is not always possible in the classroom because of seating and noise constraints.

Health and wellbeing

Both staff and children reported that they feel less pressured and are more relaxed outside. A number of the children at the school do not use the outdoors when at home, and the freedom of the outdoor space and the physical exercise children get from LINE was seen as beneficial to their health and wellbeing. Teachers feel the school is calmer after children have been outside. LINE was also felt to have a very positive impact on staff, energising them and making them ‘better teachers for it.

Pupil views

Children interviewed were from Years 5 and 6. All felt that they did more outdoor learning now than they used to. They talked about the planned outdoor classroom, which they were very excited about, and they recognised that they would be doing even more outdoor lessons in the future.

The children recalled a range of outdoor activities including looking after the free-range cockerel, chickens and rabbits, using chalk in the playground to write maths equations, mark out the solar system and digging in preparation for a new pond in the wildlife area.

The children enjoyed working outside and articulated a number of reasons why:

  • They felt they get to learn new things, such as doing maths in a different way, learning how to take care of animals and plants, and assisting teachers in cleaning out the chickens.
  • One child enjoyed the fact that you are not enclosed like you are in the classroom, and you can do stuff that you cant do at home and in class.
  • Others in the group talked about opportunities to get fresh air. They recognised that not all children are fortunate enough to experience outdoor things, like seeing the animals and wildlife in their proper habitat.
  • One boy found outdoor learning really inspiring for writing stories for literacy class.

Children interviewed recalled no negative experiences of LINE although several remembered being a little wary of unfamiliar animals including both the school chickens and some wildlife such as insects and spiders. The children felt their confidence around, and understanding of, these animals improved as they spent more time outdoors.

Parent views

The parents interviewed felt that their children have always used the outdoors during their time at Beechwood, and felt that this had a positive effect on children’s health and wellbeing. They were extremely supportive of the school.

Please contact Martin martin.gilchrist@plymouth.ac.uk if you have any questions or comments.

 

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