10 Tips for Outdoor Learning

10 tips for Outdoor Learning & Curriculum for Excellence in Recovery Phase

Rob Bushby, August 2020

Scotland’s schools are re-opening! The potential for Outdoor Learning to contribute to a ‘Recovery Phase’ is clear, from Scottish Government and Education Scotland guidance to proposals from representative networks, outdoor centres, third sector organisations, practitioners and teachers.

“Support for practitioners in Outdoor Learning has taken a prominent role in thinking about how schools will operate after the summer. Outdoor learning has many proven benefits for learning and teaching, and for all of our physical and mental health. Education Scotland are working with partners to support outdoor learning in the coming year and beyond.” From Education Scotland ‘Scotland Learns’ Practitioner Newsletter, 24 June

“Benefits of play and outdoor learning will be factored into learning plans - including opportunities for learners to be physically active, to enjoy and learn about their natural environment, and to relax.”

From Scottish Government Guidance, Curriculum for Excellence in the Recovery Phase, 5 June


How might it feature? Outdoor Learning has had increased policy and practice prominence in recent years - how can it be integrated to build on this progress?

Statements from national networks and representative bodies (Scotland and UK) – including

National Network of Outdoor Learning, SAPOE, Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, the Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel and the School Travel Forum - reinforce the scope for engagement, collaboration and contribution. Broadly, they recognise the value of:

-        continued and extended support for teachers and educators in delivering quality Outdoor Learning

-        guidance for use of school grounds and local greenspace areas to help maximise use of outdoor


-        Outdoor Learning-related resources, information, extra staffing, and clear links to Curriculum for Excellence.


The need to support Outdoor Learning/Education Residential Centres – recognising their historic and potential role - has been expressed through representations to Scottish Government. Youth work agencies are exploring ways to support their members and local authorities.


10 tips for Outdoor Learning in Scotland - why share them now?

-        At a key time for education, consistency and clarity around Outdoor Learning understanding and messaging is vital.

-        They can prompt framing, promotion and discussion around Outdoor Learning in schools.

-        Information and resources can be sourced to explore and support specific points.

-        They can be interpreted and developed in ways that contribute to Recovery Phase thinking and action.


 1            Outdoor Learning is learning in outdoor settings

It’s an approach, a method for engaging pupils, children and young people with learning. It’s a progressive pedagogy for taking the curriculum outdoors.  It doesn’t need to be seen as its own subject, specialism or sector. It can take place in many varied settings beyond school buildings.

2            Outdoor Learning can be delivered by all educators

Teachers, youth workers, outdoor instructors, countryside rangers – all can, and do, deliver ‘outdoor learning’ as part of learning plans. Those directly responsible for learning are often best placed to plan and deliver learning experiences outdoors. Resources, sharing practice and professional learning opportunities can inform and support understanding and quality of delivery.

“In line with the General Teaching Council for Scotland Professional Standards, every practitioner, school and education leader should demonstrate Learning for Sustainability [incorporating Outdoor Learning] in their practice.” (Vision 2030+ Report).

Specific and specialised roles also exist within this broad interpretation of Outdoor Learning, including leading adventurous activities and within residential centre settings.

3            Outdoor Learning is for all ages

It’s an entitlement for all learners aged 3-18, as part of Learning for Sustainability. It’s also relevant in Scotland’s Colleges, and for educators in their Career Long Professional Learning.

News items and articles often present Outdoor Learning with an Early Years focus through images and examples used, perhaps to the point of over-representation. There’s scope for more examples showing Outdoor Learning and curriculum links across Broad General Education and Senior phases.

4            Outdoor Learning is relevant for all subject areas, and can be interdisciplinary

"Exploring how the Scottish curriculum links with outdoor possibilities for ‘Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning’ in 2010, the only key limitation was chemistry experiments that require laboratory conditions.” Juliet Robertson, Creative Star Learning

Literacy and numeracy, STEM, arts, RME, geosciences, project learning, personal & social development, sustainability issues, wellbeing…all can be enhanced through Outdoor Learning.

“Scotland has a rich wealth of outdoor learning opportunities which will help children and young people make connections within and across curriculum areas.” Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning (2010)

5            Outdoor Learning helps deliver Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence

Scotland’s Curriculum restates the importance of its central four capacities and the knowledge, skills and attributes needed to adapt, think critically and flourish in today’s world. A coherent Curriculum – “the totality of all that is planned for children and young people throughout their education” - can be planned for and experienced by learners across four contexts: Inter-disciplinary/project learning, Opportunities for personal achievement, Ethos & life of school as a community, Curriculum links.

Supporting equity in education and raising the attainment of students from the most deprived backgrounds remain important priorities, particularly in light of unequal impacts of the closure of schools.

Learning for Sustainability - as an entitlement for all learners, and incorporating Outdoor Learning –

is an important context for its positioning in Scottish education policy.

Outdoor Learning (and related initiatives, award schemes and qualifications) can, and does, directly contribute across these policy areas and learning contexts.

6            Outdoor Learning supports health & wellbeing

Guidance on support for continuity of learning and Curriculum for Excellence in the Recovery Phase both reinforce the importance of wellbeing as a critical focus in recovery.

“Teachers should be confident in prioritising their pupils’ physical and mental wellbeing - over anything else - as the best way of supporting children and young people back into learning” John Swinney, Deputy First Minister, June 2020

The potential for learning in outdoor settings to contribute to wellbeing is widely recognised. Ways of meeting pupil (and teaching) needs can be further explored and articulated, with frameworks such as ‘5 Ways to Wellbeing’ offering a useful reference point, including social distancing contexts.

7            Support for teachers, educators and schools is at the heart of a Recovery Phase response

Key to increased use of Outdoor Learning is the confidence and wellbeing of teachers in using it as an approach in their teaching, and seeing its relevance in supporting learning outcomes. Re-engaging learners is also noted as a Recovery Phase priority; Outdoor Learning can contribute to this.

8            Resources, information, expertise, and additional capacity are accessible and available

Wide-ranging support for Outdoor Learning delivery in schools is available covering ideas, examples, case studies, mentors, materials, lesson plans, Professional Learning…

Third sector organisations, Scottish Government Agencies, networks, residential Outdoor Centres, local authority contacts and dedicated projects (e.g. National Network for Outdoor Learning, Scottish Advisory Panel for Outdoor Education, Awards Network, Learning Outdoors Support Team, ENFOR-supported Outdoor Learning Directory, and others) can offer tailored support and signpost to resources.

9            Green and blue space is learning space

“Schools may wish to consider the increased use of outdoor spaces when they reopen. The outdoors can provide extra space for distancing between consistent groups of learners, help to decrease the risk of transmission and improve the physical and mental health and wellbeing of young people.”  Guidance on preparing for the start of the new school term in August 2020

School grounds, local parks, gardens and nature reserves, farms, heritage sites, National Parks, rivers, coastlines…all offer learning and play opportunities. All increase space available if distancing is required. They offer opportunities to develop a progression of place-based learning, for nature contact, and can add depth, breadth, and challenge to learning experiences. They don’t need to be fantastic in terms of wildlife, or perceived ‘quality’. They’re open for learning – though consideration of access issues and risks/benefits may be needed.

See ‘Beyond your Boundary: easy steps to learning in local greenspace’ for why, where, how to access, how to use, and ways to embed learning in greenspace (including as a Professional Learning resource).

10         Teachers sharing their Outdoor Learning experiences is a rich source of support

Peer support amongst teachers in school settings offers a valuable and important source of inspiration, confidence-building, and practical lesson ideas. This can be promoted through Career Long Professional Learning opportunities, learning hubs, blog sharing, formal and informal networks, and webinars.


Further reading:

Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning (Learning & Teaching Scotland 2010); A summary of Learning for Sustainability resources (Education Scotland, 2019); Learning for Sustainability Action Plan (Scottish Government, 2019); The Impact of Learning for Sustainability on Educational Outcomes: A Summary of Findings (Scottish Government & Edinburgh University, 2020); Learning Outside the Classroom: Theory and Guidelines for Practice (free download via GTCS Resources); ‘Going Out There’ Scottish Framework for Safe Practice in Off-site Visits.

Rob Bushby is a consultant. He's a long-term member of National Network for Outdoor Learning, former chair of Real World Learning Scotland, and helped develop the Learning for Sustainability Action Plan. He worked for the John Muir Trust as head of the John Muir Award, and for Outward Bound in the Lake District and Australia.