Natural Connections Case Study – Bannerman Road Community Academy and Children’s Centre

Report to Bannerman Road Community Academy and Children’s Centre on the Natural Connections case-study visit on 8th May 2015

1. Introduction

We would like to extend our grateful thanks to staff and pupils at Bannerman Road Community Academy and Children’s Centre for making us so welcome and giving us an informative, interesting and enjoyable day. This document is a summary of the day’s findings.

 2. Interviewees

During the day, we spoke to:

    • the assistant headteacher
    • one Forest School leader
    • one teacher
    • six pupils from Years 3 and 4

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

I think there is a groundswell of acceptance and excitement in school about learning in the natural environment  … and I think staff massively see the benefit (Staff member)

3. School approach to LINE

Interviewees reported the following key points:

  • The headteacher instigated an increase in LINE to offer pupils a range of experiential opportunities that they might not otherwise have. The school provides a community greenspace that is scarce in the area. Other opportunities include going to wilder areas such as beaches and woods.
  • The school has accessed funding for outdoor learning activities from a number of sources; some funding is tied into school planning and priorities such as staff training for Forest School.
  • The school has four trained Forest School leaders and an established Forest School provision. This is regarded as separate from but related to LINE, which is focused on curricular learning.
  • LINE is seen as ‘work in progress’, and staff are now looking at different ways in which they can take curricular learning outside. The aim is to bring all the non-core subjects and science into curricular lines of enquiry, which ‘gives you a great opportunity to go outside’.
  • There are ‘pockets of excellence’ in LINE teaching, but not all staff are involved yet.
  • The Natural Connections project was reported as providing the opportunity to attend meetings in which schools share ideas on linking literacy and maths to the outdoors. These ideas can then be shared with other school staff.

[We go outside] so we can tie together … the big wide world with what children know (Staff member)

4. Overview of LINE activity

The grounds at Bannerman include a Forest School area, which has a chicken coop for two chickens, an outdoor classroom area, some woven willow structures, a storytelling chair, wooden mushrooms, totem poles for hanging hammocks, a digging pit, and twenty fruit trees planted through the Bristol Tree Pips scheme. There is also a mini-Forest School area for Reception children. There are also planting beds for the gardening club, a wild play area, an outdoor classroom and a football pitch. There are plans to establish an African garden in collaboration with the ‘Send a Cow’ charity. The school also organises trips to Leigh Woods, Boiling Wells and St Werberghs City Farm and a number of local parks. Payment to use the local adventure playground is considered money well spent.

Forest School provision is set up during staff PPA time so that ‘every single child from Nursery to Year 6 has a Forest School session every three weeks … whatever the weather’, including during the winter months; the school has a stock of wellies and waterproofs to facilitate this. Forest School sessions are not planned with class teachers but their links with the curriculum are ‘becoming more explicit’.

LINE activities are planned by individual teachers, with the support of the LINE lead. Examples of curricular areas taken outside include PE, music, science, geography, literacy and maths. Topic work on the Iron Age, taken in Leigh Woods, was regarded as a great success: ‘they [pupils] have become iron age villagers for a day! And that wow factor of bringing the environment in, gives the children that context … It’s the touching, it’s the doing … that enhances the learning all the way through’.

The school attracts a lot of volunteers, particularly from the local student population, and there is an established volunteer policy, which includes meeting them and discussing their interests and areas of expertise. Many are keen to support Forest School sessions.

5. Staff views on LINE implementation

Staff reported the following points:

  • There was an ‘understanding’ in the school that LINE contributes to making academic progress;
  • Staff readily recognised the social benefits of learning outside.
  • The Forest School leader was appreciated for the links she makes with the curriculum during Forest School, and for her LINE lesson planning.
  • Forest Schools was seen as a time for pupils to expand their experience to such activities as getting wet, playing in mud, exploring new environments, using tools and bug hunting; experiences they may not have access to at home.
  • The school has good community links for outdoor learning, with examples including ‘from plough to plate’ with the local farm, and visits from the Forest of Avon Trust.

I would like every member of staff to have that toolkit in their head like they do for literacy, numeracy and science; to be able to go, ‘I could teach this outside and this is what it looks like’. And just seamlessly go and do it! (LINE lead)

6. Challenges to LINE

Challenges were seen as:

  • Behaviour management. Many children are not used to working outside and have taken time to become used to this way of working. There is a need for these children to ‘understand the rules’ when they go outside. Regular sessions help to enable this.
  • Teacher confidence. There is a need for CPD to support staff develop their confidence in working outside and in developing purposeful sessions that are linked to the curriculum.
  • A ‘jam-packed curriculum’, regular new initiatives and ‘pressure’ to show that pupils are making progress are all challenges to LINE.
  • Communication between staff members relating to the skills pupils develop when learning outside. The school would like to articulate these more clearly so that staff can better understand the benefits of LINE.
  • Delivering Forest School activities without a large forest area in the school grounds.
  • Group sizes.Smaller groups during Forest School would allow greater individual attention for participating children.
  • Measuring the impact of learning outdoors: ‘There is a lot of learning outside that goes back into the classroom that sometimes you can’t measure’.

7. Impact of LINE

This section briefly describes the reported impact of LINE on pupils, which one staff member described as ‘endless’.

Independence

Staff reported how children regulate their own learning when outside, solving problems between themselves and working out how to (for example) put up a hammock together. One staff member talked about a ‘magic moment’ when children realise that they can learn on their own and learning changes from ‘being teacher-led to being pupil-led. That is the difference’.

Behaviour

Low-level disruption that is apparent in some classrooms was seen to disappear when children go outside to learn. Similarly children with behaviour issues were seen to be happier and more confident, possibly through the feeling of freedom that comes with being outdoors.

Social skills

Team working during Forest School time was seen to promote communication skills through children talking through strategies and explaining to each other what they are doing. Looking after the chickens teaches pupils the responsibility of looking after animals and brings out their ‘very caring side’.

Enjoyment

Pupils develop a curiosity about scientific matters, particularly about bugs, growing and different plants. They find that learning outside is fun: they ‘really love doing it!’.

Motor skills

The practical activities involved in learning outside, particularly in Forest School, were seen to develop children’s motor skills and confidence in their ability to go outside and experiment. One staff member reported how pupils invent complex games around the watercourse that involves planks, drawbridges and jumping in.

8. Pupil views

Pupils interviewed were clear about their regular Forest School sessions; they commented that they had relatively few lessons outside but gave examples of curricular activities outside during science lessons. They reported that:

  •  They liked playing on the climbing equipment because ‘it helps you balance. And it is fun’.
  • They enjoyed being outside because ‘you get to have fresh air outside’. Another commented that being outdoors ‘makes me have lots of energy … so I like to run around a lot’, while a third said that ‘I enjoy running around and digging and finding out stuff’.

We are digging to find things like we have never seen before … When I grow up I want to be an archaeologist! (Pupil)

Pupils were divided over going outside when it rains; some said the weather was unimportant and enjoyed being wet while others preferred to be inside.

Martin Gilchrist and Rowena Passy, Natural Connections Demonstration Project. Please contact Martin martin.gilchrist@plymouth.ac.uk if you have any questions or comments.

 

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