Friday 4th April saw a conference on outdoor learning run by Kirklees Learning Services. The conference was at Cliffe House, a residential, outdoor learning centre to which I had brought many a class of pupils and that will be host to CampEd14.There were keynote presentations by myself and Juliet Robertson. There were also some fabulous workshops.
Juliet’s keynote presentation was inspiring and grounded in countless case studies, research activities and practical examples, all illustrating the profound importance of learning outside the classroom. She described how for her as an educator, the outdoors evolved from being a ‘jolly nice thing’ to ‘an absolute need and necessity’. She made the point that zoos have a legal requirement to provide a certain amount of space to their primates: and yet, in comparison to that, we confine our young people in classrooms with a fraction of that space – and expect effective learning to happen. Juliet reminded us of the memorability or ‘stickiness’ that outdoor learning often has to it.
She also reassured us that risks are an essential part of outdoor learning and to not get overly hung up on risk as unrepresentative perceptions can easily become barriers (a point later reiterated by Kirklees’ adviser for outdoor learning). She cited, by way of example, the fact that there had been not a single death of a young person in the UK from berries or mushrooms in the last 60 years.
I like the simplicity of Juliet’s approach, epitomised by her emphasis on the importance of forming circles with learners and handing the learning over to them, “Form a circle, ask them to go off and find something interesting, return to the circle and then discuss.”
For me, one of the key messages was Juliet urging us to have a go, and take a chance and a couple of quotes summed that up nicely:
“Of course you go out on a limb. That’s where all the fruit is.” Mark Twain
“You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” Wayne Gretsky
Workshop 1 Maths from Sticks and Stones – Juliet Robertson
Juliet also ran a workshop throughout the day with an emphasis on mathematical development through the use of sticks and stones.
We warmed up in a circle, varying the formation and size of the circle as we went along (feet touching, elbows touching, sticks touching, shoulders touching). With a meter-long stick each, we worked on some simple counting games involving tapping our sticks, passing them, walking in different directions around the circle with ‘switch’ and ‘Fizz-buzz’ variations. We then moved into smaller groups where we were first introduced to Juliet’s bag of tricks – a variety of natural resources for maths such as pebbles with numbers and symbols, sticks of varying length and gauge, shorter sticks with coloured tips, rope etc. Importantly, she also has an old white sheet – invaluable if you want to ‘display’ a find or something interesting. The brief for the small groups was to simply ‘do something mathematically interesting’ with a resource-set. This is both challenging and empowering and I can see how the approach can really put the learning in the hands of the learners (as well as providing a perfect assessment for learning opportunity).
Groups were then able to see what others had done and share ideas. A final ‘plus, minus, interesting’ plenary rounded us off.
Workshop 2 Bushcraft
My second workshop was with Cliffe House centre manager, Rosie Taylor. Delegates used a range of tools to firstly prepare and set a fire (without matches) before whittling skewers for marsh-mallow toasting.
Rosie emphasised the importance of careful briefing and tool-talk prior to an activity that involved bow-saws and fire. Again, the risk-assessment watch-words here are ‘supervision’ and ‘common-sense’. “For a fire this size, you definitely wouldn’t want the children to use gloves, you’d want them feeling the danger for themselves.”
Fires were set in little mini-barbecue containers and lit with cotton wool and ‘sparkers’ (no matches or lighters!).
Finally, sticks were whittled using potato peelers (good quality, wooden handles recommended here) before skewering a well-deserved mallow!
Workshop 3 Story time
My lovely next door neighbour and Cliffe House teacher, Catherine Heppenstall, ran an enthralling session on story. We gathered in a willow grotto to first listen to Catherine as she held us rapt, wrapped (herself) in story-robe and seated on her teller’s throne. She told the story of the unfortunate farmer who came a cropper upon the third sneeze of his donkey! Snip-snap-snout! Her story was out.
Catherine reminded us of the importance of oral story telling (as opposed to ‘read’ stories); how the narrative can be fluid, flexible and responsive – the hero’s hair may be flame-red one day and raven-black another.
We all know the ingredients of a good story: a setting (in place and time), a character or two (with certain dispositions), a problem etc. How wonderful then to wander the woods and pluck these elements from the trees and bushes and thread them onto a ‘story-stick’ that would later be the concrete framework from which we would tell our own stories!
Workshop 4 Cob-ovens
The final workshop was facilitated by conference-organiser Andrew Heath-Beesley and would be best described as a project. Over the course of the day, delegates devoted themselves to the construction of a cob-oven atop an impressive pediment (formed of recycled bottles and clay). Clay was ‘mined’ (shovelled) from a rich source elsewhere on the Cliffe House estate and transported via wheel-barrow to the construction site.
Constructing a cob-oven is such a great cross-curricular activity. There is so much in it: collaboration, planning, design-technology, changing state (dobbing the wattle & dawb was a particularly consuming activity!), art & design. I could go on.
Keynote – Digitally Outdoors
I gave a keynote presentation about the use of technology in outdoor learning.
and, if the evaluation forms were anything to go by, we have provided some valuable CPD!
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