Sarah Lee: Our children are missing a lesson in the great outdoors

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IT’S September and children have returned to school after a long and fair-weathered summer break. For some, this vacation will have been full of adventure and exploring the world around them. For others, it was probably spent in front of the TV.

Sadly the countryside remains an enigma for many children. This is why the Countryside Alliance believes that all children should have the chance to experience the outdoors through their school. Not only because it is soul enriching, but also because it can help with concentration and learning.

New research by The Countryside Alliance Foundation (TCAF) backs this up. Polling shows a strong demand for outdoor learning amongst parents, with 91 per cent wanting the countryside to play a greater role in their children’s education and 92 per cent thinking that their child would benefit from being given hands-on tuition in the countryside.

Interestingly, these very same parents also tell us that they believe that one of the biggest barriers to getting children out of the classroom is the red-tape and health and safety fears.

This school-trip compensation culture is harming our children’s education and we are encouraged to see that parents know this is more of a myth than it is a reality.

Figures show that just 16 Local Education Authorities paid out compensation arising from accidents on school trips last year, at an average of only £300 per authority.

Despite this very low incidence of accidents on school trips (and the majority of pay-outs coming from ski-trips!), there is still a disproportionate fear of litigation arising from health and safety bureaucracy, which prevents many teachers from taking young people out of the classroom as a way of developing their learning.

Media fervour and misinterpreted teacher union guidance following those rare incidents when they happen has unintentionally led to a climate of fear around taking pupils out of the classroom.

As a result, children are missing out on valuable learning experiences. However, with the high demand amongst parents and children, we hope these latest figures can inspire more teachers to feel confident in letting children enjoy the benefits of outdoor education.

The benefits can be immense. Outdoor education helps children gain a practical understanding of the world around them; builds self confidence; tests their abilities; enables them to take managed risks: and develops a sense of responsibility and tolerance towards places and people.

Outdoor learning can also help children and young people understand subjects like maths or science through real world examples and first-hand experience. While academic achievement is important, outdoor education can play a significant role helping pupils develop soft skills like good communication, team work and leadership; all of which are essential to the well-rounded education that is vital for life beyond the classroom.

The Countryside Alliance Foundation is not just talking about the benefits of outdoor education; we are working hard in delivering it in Yorkshire and across the country through our Fishing for Schools initiative.

This teaches young people the unique skills of fly fishing and offer them a gateway into the natural world. Run by renowned angling personality Charles Jardine and his dedicated team, his mission is simple – to educate and enhance young lives.

The course has already seen children from Cathedral School, Wakefield, and Honley High School, Holmfirth, experience this short course. This programme is particularly beneficial to those children with special educational needs, who find academic work particularly difficult but respond well to alternative learning.

On one recent course, an autistic child was so engaged by Charles’s demonstration that he talked to him about what he had experienced. This was the first time he had ever spoken to anyone outside his family. The legacy of the project is for all to see with existing schools maintaining their association with the programme and the lasting impact this project has had on the children.

Schemes like Fishing for Schools show what a difference alternative forms of teaching, done outside the classroom, can have on children who know little of the natural would.

My summer holidays were spent exploring the world around me, getting to know the countryside and learning about nature, which is why it still shocks me that some children cannot recognise an oak tree, a robin or can tell their teacher where milk comes from.

This is also why TCAF is so passionate about encouraging a greater use of outdoor learning, ensuring children have a better understanding of the countryside and enabling teachers to bring learning to life without feeling threatened by a ‘compensation culture’.

With this in mind, we call on the Government to create an entitlement to outdoor education within the National Curriculum, and ensure that future generations never lose touch with the world around them.