Natural Connections Case Study -Millbrook Church of England Primary School

Report to Millbrook C of E Primary School on the Natural Connections case-study visit on 23rd March 2015

  1. Introduction

We would like to extend our warm thanks to the staff and students at Millbrook Church of England Primary School for making us so welcome and giving us an informative, interesting and enjoyable visit. This document is a summary of our findings.

1. Interviewees

During the visit we spoke with:

  • Two members of staff
  • Three pupils from Years 3 and 4

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.

2. School approach to LINE

Interviewees reported the following key points:

  • Teaching outside at Millbrook is something staff have been keen to develop, particularly as some children do not use the outdoors when out of school. Parents are enthusiastic about this approach.
  • Staff used the Natural Connections project to kick-start an increase in outdoor activity this academic year, making use of contacts and ideas from the project.
  • Teachers are developing and gaining confidence in their LINE practice by increasing the amount of outdoor opportunities they provide for pupils slowly and steadily. LINE is used for lessons in maths, English, Science, geography and art.
  • Alongside this gradual development the school have used LINE for a targeted maths intervention.
  • Staff across the school believe that LINE has many different benefits for their pupils. LINE has now become part of the longer-term school planning and is an important part of the School Improvement Plan.
  • Millbrook is developing links with Torpoint Community College and Millbrook Village pre-school to support LINE development.

‘One little boy has really flourished whereas in the classroom he is seen as not … that capable. I think it is … a different environment, a different way of learning.’ (member of staff)

3. Overview of LINE activity

The school has large grounds with a range of spaces suitable for outdoor learning. These include a large meadow / sports field, allotment area, wildlife area, pond, spiritual garden, raised growing beds outside the Key Stage 1 classrooms, and a woodland area with seating logs. Parents have been helpful in grounds development, offering both labour and materials. The school is in the process of developing many of these areas further to enable more LINE activity, and plan to develop an amphitheatre.

Outdoor practice is strongest in Foundation and Key Stage 1 classes, where staff have tried to take curricular learning outside as much as possible this academic year. There are now regular planned activities in Key Stage 1, many of which are open-ended to encourage children’s free exploration.

All Key Stage 1 pupils experience Forest School. Staff allow children to follow their own lines of enquiry when working outside as long as they are purposeful, as this provides a valuable experience that is impossible in classroom, and these experiences are used as inspiration for activities such as different types of writing when back in the classroom. Year 3 pupils have also completed a term of Forest School activities, and the school aims to make Forest School experiences available to all pupils.

Key Stage 2 LINE activity is less regular, although these classes use the school grounds in the summer.

The SEN Teaching Assistant leads a mixed-age maths intervention group. This is a standalone intervention that is targeted particularly at children who need to improve their maths skills and confidence. The aim is to expand the intervention as staff develop their confidence in leading maths outside.

‘LINE … grabs the children’s attention and you can actually physically see excitement … I think when children are excited about something they’ll learn better … and this has just grasped their imagination’ (member of staff)

4. Staff views on LINE implementation

Staff interviewed reported a positive attitude to LINE within the school:

  • School leadership and staff recognise the benefits that LINE can have for pupils, and staff appreciate the way that the headteacher encourages staff to develop their own LINE interests.
  • The school now needs to turn staff enthusiasm into action in a way that is manageable for colleagues

5. Challenges to LINE

Challenges were seen as:

  • Developing staff confidence in practice and behaviour management when outside, as it can take time to build up teaching experience in a different environment. Staff have learned not to use live creatures (snails) for tally chart work, for example, as they distracted children from the task!
  • Developing a bank of resources that includes LINE activities, ideas and links to the curriculum for Key Stage 2. Staff commented that resources were more available for Key Stage 1 than Key Stage 2, and that developing resources becomes more challenging for older children. Teachers would like more guidance on how to make working outdoors purposeful.
  • The pressures of Key Stage 2 assessment mean that teachers are less likely to take Key Stage 2 pupils outdoors.
  • The school is small with limited staffing levels. This means that outdoor activities can rely heavily on voluntary help and that, if this support is not available, that these activities can be cancelled, which is disappointing for the pupils.

6. Impact of LINE

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

Attainment

Staff reported that they believe LINE improves attainment. One teacher has seen children in her class make greater progress in science than they have in previous years, and believed this was because of their LINE activities; working outside sparks discussion in a way that would not happen indoors. Staff who do not lead outdoor sessions have commented on the improvement in pupils’ work when in follow-up sessions after LINE activities. Similarly, staff have seen links between LINE and higher attainment with the outdoor maths group.

Engagement with learning

Staff reported an increase in children’s engagement with learning: [children] love it [LINE] and the inspiration that comes from it’. This increased engagement means pupils are receptive to learning in a way there were not before: ’I think in a way they don’t actually really appreciate they are actually doing maths …  until you … start asking them questions … and then the realisation clicks!’.  

Similarly, staff reported improvements have in classroom-based work as pupils draw on their outdoor experiences. When teachers took the pupils outside for a unit of work on poetry, for example, the children used the school grounds to explore their senses and: ‘… the language that came from it was so much better than if we had just stayed in the class’.

Self confidence

LINE has been used specifically to support the development of children’s confidence and self-esteem. Learning outside it has been particularly helpful for those pupils who find it difficult to access the curriculum, where they can ‘flourish’.

Greater confidence can mean that children are more communicative when working outdoors; staff have noticed that pupils are more keen to share ideas during LINE sessions, partly because they have more freedom to talk. Children also support each other and correct each other; when there is also a mix of infant and junior children ‘…the juniors do tend to nurture the infants’, helping to explain tasks and ideas as necessary.

Behaviour

Staff reported that working outside is something pupils look forward to every week, and

that behaviour was good during LINE activities. The school has a number of boisterous boys in Key Stage 1, and initially their behaviour in Forest School was an issue. However they are now more focused: ’sometimes they follow their own lines of enquiry or create something of their own … [their work] is always purposeful and there aren’t any issues with behaviour with them now’.

Working outside also enables a different relationship between staff and pupils; staff learn more about individuals by seeing them in a different context. This greater understanding is helpful if a pupil’s behaviour becomes an issue.

Since working outside ‘…we saw strengths that they had that we just didn’t realise they [pupils] had in the classroom’. (member of staff)

 7. Pupil views

The pupils interviewed were part of the group who were involved in maths outdoors. They could recall a number of topics studied outside such as clocks, estimation of rainfall, distances and shapes. They demonstrated knowledge around concepts such as angles and number bonds.

The children said how much they enjoyed the LINE activities: because it was fun outside and we got to do different things’ but also recognised that their maths was improving as a result. They described various activities including using water pistols to identify the answers to problems, and how they had touched and moved sticks, stones and other natural materials; they said that they enjoyed doing maths but in a different way’  and that they enjoyed the creativity of the LINE sessions.

The children agreed amongst themselves that there they enjoyed everything when working outside, and did not change their minds when they were reminded that they been outside in all weathers! They reported differing noise levels when outside, from very quiet to very loud, saying that some loud activities were not suitable for indoors.

The children agreed that they had more freedom to do activities outside that were not possible inside. Examples included:

  • Working on the grassy and other natural areas in the school grounds ‘… and we got to go and get the things from the spiritual garden’.
  • ‘And we sometimes don’t need help…we can do it by ourselves’
  • Collecting snails for tally charts!

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

 

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