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Episode 34: 
The What and Why of Outdoor Learning


Marina Robb

Hosted by: Marina Robb

In this episode, Marina discusses: 

In episode 34, Marina defines outdoor learning and shares practical examples of its implementation in schools. Additionally, she explores the broader social and economic context we live in and questions if our education system should provide more opportunities for young people to understand political and economic processes, especially with the backdrop of the upcoming UK General elections.

It seems remiss to spend 14-16 years in education without grasping basic democracy and economics, and giving young people a platform to voice their ideas. As we develop a practical climate curriculum, addressing these wider systems is crucial.

"As an advocate for outdoor learning and Forest School, I understand the barriers educators and health professionals face in taking their practice outdoors, often due to a lack of confidence, time, and leadership."

Marina dives into:

  • The significance of outdoor learning and nature-based education within a broader social and economic context.
  • Balancing respect for boundaries with personal growth and environmental sustainability is essential.
  • Outdoor learning supports children's healthy development, attachment, and self-regulation, and should integrate the best educational research.
  • Valuing diversity and sustainability in outdoor learning, along with co-creating outcomes with children, is vital.
  • Education and society must urgently adapt to climate change and environmental degradation.
  • Outdoor learning, experiential education, and community involvement are key to addressing these challenges.

Music by Geoff Robb: www.geoffrobb.com 

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(transcribed by AI so there maybe some small errors!)

Hello, and welcome to The Wild Minds Podcast for people interested in health, nature-based therapy and learning. We explore cutting edge approaches that help us improve our relationship with ourselves, others and the natural world. My name is Marina Robb, I'm an author, entrepreneur, for a school outdoor learning and nature-based trainer and consultant, and pioneer in developing green programs for the health service in the UK. 

So my gratitude for today is really about all the plants and in particular, the flowers because it's a time of year in June, in England, when there are just so many flowers, and particularly I love walking past flowers and smelling them.

I love the smell of the roses, the elder flowers, the lime blossom, and soon the meadow sweet. And it's the time of the Summer Solstice, when there is just so much more light in the northern hemisphere. And we're all pretty tired, because we're probably waking up really early, because it's light at 4.30 in the morning, and then going to bed much, much later, that often summer is linked to actually feeling quite tired, particularly this point of the year.

And if you're somebody that's working outside and so on, but it's also a time of year, which reminds us through the plants that we actually need to take it easy and a lot of the medicine and the plants this time of year, are really good for relaxing your nervous system and then kind of known as nervine tonics.

Now, I'm not a herbalist, but I do comfortably use some flowers that I know are safe, like lime blossom from the linden trees or Hawthorn blossom, or in a garden, I have lemon balm that's growing, or even rose to kind of make tonics and I might just put hot water on them, and drink that. And it's just really relaxing.

So yeah, I always feel really amazed by what plants provide for us. And yeah, really grateful to plants, for the many, many reasons that we touch on in this podcast. So today, I want to think about the kind of what is outdoor learning, but I also want to kind of think about the wider context because we're not doing this education in a vacuum. We're doing it at a time of great change. And I guess, through the ages, people would have always said that there was always change happening. And I guess that's one of the truths about life, that there is always change, there is always movement, and nothing ever actually stays the same.

So what are the best conditions for life to thrive? For a young person or even a human? I mean, this is one of the kind of fundamental questions and kind of what, what motivates us to even care about the natural world or to develop a sense of belonging, and attachment to a place?

These are kind of the bigger questions that I, I ask, and I and I'm thinking about as I develop this podcast and the work that I do, and it also really, really asked the question about what is freedom, you know, because a lot of our work as outdoor practitioners is really promoting the idea of exploration of children actually being free to play, to explore, to develop their own sense of autonomy, that they can choose what they do, particularly if we're thinking about forest school, that we're sets within outdoor learning.

And, you know, learning to kind of tune into your needs and actually, through that, understand yourself a lot better. But it always kind of troubles me this notion that we can just be free to do what we want when we want, because that's not the kind of freedom that I think I'm talking about. I think there is a sense of freedom to be who you are, but not to do what you want. Because inevitably, there are limits, and actually understanding that there are limits and the boundaries are so important. And that comes up when you're working outdoors, the need for physical boundaries, but also emotional boundaries. And I've really think about that because we're living in a society in the west where we have a lot of freedom.

We're given a sense that we can do what we want and we can take what we want and our policies kind of enforce that we can extract resources from the natural world and, and that there isn't really a cost to that, but we know that there is a cost to that. So this idea of freedom and boundaries and consent. And choice. All need to be understood within a wider context. Now. There are many, many meta crisis's that are happening in the world crises, and pollution crisis and climate change huge social issues that have a huge impact on people's lives as well as on the natural world. And we know that in education, we have a role to play.

Now, the climate crisis has never really received what we could call the crisis treatment from our leaders, even though we all know that it carries the likelihood of destroying lives on a much larger scale than the banking crisis, for example. And I wonder when I'm thinking about climate education and climate crisis, I'm wondering how we begin to engage in wider conversations that actually look at the way our economy is run, look at our political system, and actually see how democratic is it? And how could we improve it?

And how could we engage more people in, in the political process, for example, and greater political understanding? Because I realised, I'm entering my later years, not that old. But I'm entering my later years, and I don't understand so much about the political system, for example. And, you know, what is politics got to do with education? What is economy got to do with education, and I was sitting in a meeting, and we were looking at some really good programmes that are coming out for climate education.

But there was no mention of economy, and no mention of politics, and I can't really see how they're not all linked together, the decisions that are made at political levels, the decisions that are made, in terms of how we run our economy, and we know that our economy is, is based on an a NEO Liberalist extractive model, that if we don't really addressing that we're not really looking at why we have a climate crisis, and the interests that exist of you know, few people, few organisations, few corporations, that really, really benefit from that.

And I don't really think that that is me saying, I have one particular view on a particular, you know, party, I think this is about us as a, as a nation, as a as a, as citizens, not consumers saying, well hang on, how do we actually want to live our life? And how do we create systems that support an ecological society? And I think education has a role to play in that.

So what is the role of outdoor learning in all of this? And I guess, you know, it's, again, it holds one piece of a wider puzzle. But I do want to say it positively that we, as humans, have been part of systems that have been really destructive, and they're still part of systems that are destructive, but we can change those systems, for example, you know, we learn in school, don't worry about slavery. And we know that at the time, slavery wasn't a crisis for the people that were profiting from that. But it became part of a movement when people change and realise that that wasn't right.

Apartheid was the same. You know, in that system, it didn't feel like a crisis if you were the winners. And then, you know, a movement of anti-apartheid was created. I often think as a woman that, you know, at the time, when women didn't have the vote, presumably, the people that had the vote, most of them didn't really think that was a problem. But it became known, you know, we learn, I think what I'm saying is that you when you're in a system, it feels kind of invisible, because you're in a system and you think that's just the way it is, but we, as humans, have a huge capacity for change and to bring in things that make a difference. And I think that that many of you out there, really get that and I wonder why I call this podcast, the wild mind podcast because it feels like kind of entertaining ideas that aren't part of the domesticated thinking, the kind of normal set of thinking that we've been brought up to have and it's maybe you could say it's slightly wild that we, the people and the plants and the trees and all the species could actually be part of a new movement or an ongoing movement.

Maybe this is an old movement that is more inclusive, and does create generous communities and does actually recognise that most of us are not driven just by competition and survival of the fittest, actually, we are quite altruistic. And actually, we do work cooperatively with each other. But we are kind of driven to think we're going to lose everything. And then away what we need to do is to be really thinking about building our communities and our sense of communities and knowing that we can lean into each other. And I think that perhaps, our mental health crisis, that is growing in numbers, has something to do with the sense that we don't have a community that we can lean into.

So these are some of my thoughts, before I even address the idea of outdoor learning. But of course, this is my field of interest is, is outdoor learning and, and nature education. And I guess the more you go into this, practically and you, you, you build skills, and understanding about ecology and management of land, and the role of humans, within the natural systems that you bump up, of course, against, actually, what are the systems that are underlying that are actually contributing to people not having access to nature, or the mental health crisis, or pollution, you know, massive scales, and who's actually benefiting from it. And I think most of people out there really, really do want a society that is more fair, and that the wealth is, is more distributed. And that's not to say that we can't have enough, you know, but that this idea that public, the public space, our communities, our national health services, our parks, our seas, are wonderful spaces for everybody to enjoy.

So the moment I say why nature education, I have to say, well, we're how do we have access to that? And my, my life is part of actually thinking how do we bring outdoor learning underpinned by values that actually look to create a better Ecological Society to create that is one of the key things that needs to happen within education. So nature education, it can be Forest School, it can be outdoor learning, it can be nature, kindergarten, environmental education, adventure play, there's so many terms that get actually used within this wider idea of nature education.

But what we need to think about when we're thinking about learning is that, you know, learning the building blocks of learning actually start with healthy development, start with attachment, healthy attachment to parents, to carers to, to humans, we are absolutely social beings, we need to have that understanding about managing our own stress and the importance of actually self-regulation and how we actually co regulate with each other before we're actually ready to go into school and to learn and to actually develop our academic cognitive capabilities. So, my approach to outdoor learning, and for a school is really like a blended approach because I want to take the best of education research and pull it together. I don't really care about what you call it. But I'm looking and saying what is quality pedagogy?

And how do we actually draw on all this, all these theorists and years of experience to pull out what is what I think is quality education. So outdoor learning is usually a broad term that includes outdoor play in the early years. As I said, it might include environmental education, adventure activities, personal development, team development, but generally within education and sort of curriculum delivery, it's normally associated with taking any subject based learning into the outdoors. That could be like maps in the outdoors history in the outdoors, science in the outdoors, physical education in the outdoors. and so on. But common characteristics include things like valuing the direct experience, like experiential, legit education, active learning. So using your body, you're moving, you're busy thinking as well, you're engaging your emotions, you're having all those social interactions. It broadens horizons, and it stimulates new interests.

And when the values are in place, it has a real respect for diversity, and sustainability, or what I like is regeneration, really looking at about how we can improve the land that we're working on. So as many of you know, I also work within Forest School and in Forest School sort of sits within the wider kind of umbrella of outdoor learning. And that's much more of a child centred process. And we're thinking when we're when we're when we're holding for school spaces, that we're actually wanting to develop confidence and self-esteem. And we want to instil the skills and understandings of how we can look after that place, as well. And there are many other things that I'm not really going to touch on now.

But if you want to learn more about Forest School, I really encourage you to go to the Forest School Association, and look up the six principles, because those six principles are really wonderful pillars of a really healthy model of education. But of course, it doesn't just sit with him for a school because great characteristics of pedagogy really do give serious consideration to pupils voice now, the more kinds of psychological work that I do, we know that we need to be heard, as humans, we need to be witnessed, we need to be listened to, we need to actually be valued. And when that happens, kind of light up, suddenly, we understand that it's okay to be who we are. And we've shared our experience. And it's really important. And it's an important skill that that I think we really need to bring into education. And I'm a real advocate for this idea of actual participation, and participating in education. And of course, that links to feeling engaged within education, if you feel that you've kind of made it together, then you're much more likely to be engaged. And that's also true for the political system.

And again, I'm not trying to go down one party route here, I'm just thinking about the importance of how we participate in in this process and feel that we can be heard and have something to say because it's because if we if we don't do that we're completely disengaged. And I think that also happens very much in education that if we're only operating from a particular way of working, then then many of many of our students, particularly if you're not using your hands, and you're not using your body, many of us get really disengaged from the process. And we never feel that we've done we've done it or succeeded, which is part of the reason that we lose our sense of confidence and self-worth. And you know, all of these things have a role to play in building mental health. So, outdoor learning, using the body using an embodied, approach the hands, the head, the heart, is going to increase mental health. And it's going to increase engagement and learning.

And it's going to increase the ability to learn because you're going to be much more relaxed because you're in your body. And you're not always like dealing with feeling in a way defensive. And when you're defensive. You don't you don't learn. So I, I love working outdoors. And I've seen loads of success of practitioners both within the education system and the health system, taking their practice outdoors. And although training is incredibly valuable, because you learn from others that have gone before you and they can give you inspiration and skills, many of us don't.

Within our own professions, we don't then need to get more qualifications. We just need to have good ideas and experiences and of course meet health and safety while doing that. So the outdoors, as you can imagine, offers wonderful first hand experiences direct experiences, we can actually really risk assess together we can get children to think for themselves, and to think of the consequences and make choices but not choices that oppress others, and the others, not just being other people, but also the natural world, because everything we do has an impact. And, and when and when. And I think it's not that we're not going to avoid impact. Because as we know, everything dies, right? There is always an end to things, there's always a loss, there's always a, an impact, but at least we need to be aware of, of that impact, and participate in what we're trying to aim for, which is why I'm always really interested in vision and thinking, well, what are we trying to do here?

With our education system, with our society, you know, where are we going, and how we're going to get there. And certainly, it's going to be many, many people's ideas, and many, many different ways of understanding what it is to be human that is going to get us there. If the practitioner is, is aware of the impact of how they treat the other person, then they're going to know that in order to create a non-judgmental space, you have to be able to be welcoming of difference. And you have to be flexible on the outcomes that you think you want. Or are you going to co create the outcomes together, and there's a real difference. Because, obviously, if we're pushing for outcomes, that's coming from the outside and not from within, then we're not going to get full engagement and participation. And there's going to be a consequence for that. So understanding that there are things that are coming from the inside of us that matter is important and understanding that we as individuals do matter, and our values do matter.

And I think great outdoor learning really considers that it really allows for time where we actually engage in well, what would you like to do? What are your ideas? What would you like to learn? What interests you? What are your solutions? I don't have all the solutions, what are your solutions. And in a way, this kind of sits upon this idea about play being really, really serious business. I mean, we know that this kind of approach is playful approach is actually how we learn. Because we're experimenting, we're exploring. And we know that research shows that people who are played deprived are much more likely to be quite violent.

And there's tonnes of research that shows that so we ideally, within our outdoor learning, we bring in outdoor play, we bring in this kind of flexible approach. But whilst I say that I really want to kind of name that I've been really reflecting on the importance of play, obviously, but also remembering this idea of limits as well that we are doing that in a wider content context of being socialised that we are considering the impact of ourselves on others. And, you know, when we scale that up into policies and politics, we are, we need policies and politics that have an awareness of the impact on what we're doing to others, and also the environment. And I think that this notion that we are free, and you know, as individuals to, to go forth in life, and do have everything we want and do what we want, is, is mistaken. And, you know, we do need laws and limits and more than ever in the society that we're in now, we understand that we need to be educating young people to understand more about the complexity of the systems that we're within.

So play actually prepares us to find our way in uncertain, ever changing nonlinear worlds. Because one thing I remember, during the COVID crisis was I had on my fridge like relax, you're not in control. And that actually really did help me. Because, you know, this idea of being in control all the time is a false sense of security because we're not so learning to be flexible and being an adapting is He's actually really important. And as I say that that is helped by a sense of community helped by a society where if you do get ill you can go to receive hospital treatment. And these things are really important. These things are where we help each other. So, I've said, I've mentioned about the Climate Action Plan mandate, and I've mentioned this in my webinars, and I often do free webinars and things like that. Because within education there is in the UK, by 2025, all education settings will have a nominated sustainability lead, and put in place a Climate Action Plan. Now, it's not statutory yet, it's not statutory to do that.

So again, it's going to be schools thinking that it's important, and that we need to do that. And hopefully, that will change, hopefully, we'll be able to have an education system that at least understands that we need to educate children to participate in their future. Because we know that young people are worried about the future. And I can understand that, that as a young person, I kind of like, look, look at adults, and not really understand why they weren't concerned or emotional about what was happening. And, you know, would feel really weird, it would feel really weird. It's something that as a child feels so present and important, and they're being taught about the science of climate change. And it's like, well, how come? How come if it's this serious, you're not really doing anything? And, yeah, it's a great question, isn't it? It's a great question. And I understand that we can be overwhelmed. I'm overwhelmed at times, but I've learned over 35 years of being in this field, that we have to hold that in some way, that big capacity of, of being overwhelmed, and certainly not being able to take that fully on.

Because it's, it's, it's a, it's a shared responsibility. And it's absolutely about the bigger governmental, corporate economy, economic decisions that we're making, as well as the individual, but the individual, as we know, can just do what we do. And that's, that's okay. But it's the bigger decisions that need to be made that are going to really have that impact. So we carry on, of course, we carry on, and we know that we're participating in something that the whole world and the people are thinking about. And, and we talked about tipping points, you know, this kind of social tipping point where suddenly everyone gets it. I mean, it's changed so much over the last 30 years, from being alternative, and kind of laughed at this idea about caring for the natural world. And thinking about the impact of fertilisers on the soil and the lab, you know, the food quality and all this kind of thing. And it's changed from being a really kind of out there idea into really mainstream.

So we're getting there, we're getting there. And this is really important. So kind of I guess, the wild becomes more of the norm, when we actually understand that we are part of this incredibly wild, vibrant, connected, emerging system. So climate action, when we think about what needs to be in that, in that in that curriculum, first, I think we need to develop the felt sense through experience. So for sure, we need to be giving young people lots of experiential opportunities, growing things, noticing the plants, understanding more about that giving lots of hand based opportunities, learning through the through the outdoors, you know, learning taking the curriculum outdoors, understanding about maths, understanding about English, developing language, storytelling, all the opportunities, which I'll touch on in a bit, but only touch on in terms of the curriculum.

And that's going to have to be underpinned by a stream of, of climate education that is beginning to help us get into well, what is this political system that we have, which is really our opportunity to, as I say, participate? It's democracy, isn't it? It's about how do things get changed, and that's our system is democracy and, and I would love to hear what children and young people have to say about out the system and also what they could imagine, the imagination is so important to be able to imagine something different to what we've got. And there's so much intelligence out there to consider different ways of doing it. And there's so many people that have gone before us, or current living people that have great ideas.

So why don't we look at it? Why don't we look at it together, right, rather than this extreme polarisation, let's look at it, let's go look at it. I mean, I'm, I'm a, I'm a student of this, I have no fixed ideas about what it looks like, but I'm, but I want to learn and I want and I want to know what's out there. So I'd really encourage that. But for certain, whatever we do, it's got to sit within a understanding that we are humans within a living, ecological system, and that what we do impacts us and our future generations. And remember, we are the ancestors that are coming.

So the research says that time in nature with others, really doing things that are fun and meaningful, whether that's within the school or not, has huge benefits to our mental health. I've seen this from practising for years, you know, our senses are stimulated, and it helps us to regulate ourselves. It's amazing, you know, just through the breath, just through movement, going on a walk, being stimulated through our eyesight can really change how we feel. And we need those experiences, in order to then have positive relationships, there's so much research, I'm just going to name a couple of things, you know, says, research says that exercise in the natural environment may be more effective in reducing anger and depression, compared to equivalent exercise indoors. So even taking your running outdoors or your walking outdoors can make a massive difference. A study of the behaviour of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD, is different in environments, like woodlands, compared to urban places, so you can see that there's actually a change in children's ability to focus to connect at when they're outdoors, in reduces some of these kinds of symptoms.

I mean, there's a whole kind of other research around that as well. But just to give you an idea of that kind of difference in behaviour, actually, when you are outdoors. And of course, as I said, we can link it to the curriculum. And as teachers and as practitioners, what we really need to think about is, is the risk, and the benefits of doing it. Health and safety law in the UK requires us to do risk assessments. And it's that process of actually thinking, okay, so this is a hazard this, this could be something that caused harm. And how severe could the harm be if I actually did this activity outdoors? And you think through it, and then you put in what people call control measures? So you, you think, Okay, well, actually, look, there's a ditch over there. So I'm going to put a little stick in there with a red flag. So children know, because they're not stupid children know that they can't go in that day ditch and of course, we can co talk about this with children. And, of course, most people have, you know, engaged, common sense and will understand what risk is, but we do need to give opportunities for that. And I think going full circle back to climate, climate change is that what is the risk? What are the what's the potential to cause harm, right, so the risk factors are really high.

And what are the control measures we can put in, it's a simple process of working through risks and control measures. And that's the same when we think about taking activities outside using tools, using bits of wood or tires to make obstacle courses and make learning active. Remember, we can do this throughout seasons, we can do it in the winter, we can do it in the autumn, we can do it in the summer, there are so many things that we can do around birds or mammals tracking or listening to sounds or looking at the way birds travel across the globe. And for the little ones you know, making little paper bird herds and going on walks with them, noticing what's in their local environment, that attachment to the space, we can make potions and medicines. And we can learn about the web of life through games and spiders and making webs.

And there's just so many things, of course, the wonderful things about trees, and I was making cordage, using lime bark last week, in a in a lime bark, and it's such a wonderful thing to do. And it's incredibly therapeutic. Because despite what you might have going on in your head, you can be really focused and use your hands and make things and it's relaxing.

Science needs to be outside, we need to see how biology actually operates. directly, we can take a magnifying glass and look at the stamens in a in a flower and understand that all the plants linked to families, the mint family, the rose family, and how they all have characteristics, because they're part of the same family. And on it goes, folks. Yes, we need to think about boundaries and routines and holding Safe Spaces. But I know people can do it. And I think it's that confidence isn't it is that confidence of taking that first step. But I would say you don't have to do that on your own. You can do that with your class and think it through and make it a bit of an adventure. And we know from research that actually the search was done many years ago now I think it was 2012, where teachers reported that lessons were more enjoyable, had a positive impact on behaviour increase pupils’ health and well-being. And of course, that led to a much greater understanding of nature and the reciprocity that exists between all of life actually.

So I'm going to leave you with that. I hope you get a sense of what outdoor learning is what a little bit of touch on Forest School, but also within the wider context of living in a society and engaging in education, engaging in economics and coaching in political understanding and how all these things are not actually separate and they all they all are part of understanding the system that we're in.

Thank you for listening to this episode of The Wild Minds Podcast. If you enjoyed it and want to help support this podcast, please subscribe, share and leave a rating and review wherever you get your podcasts. Your review will help others find the show.

To stay updated with The Wild Minds Podcast and get all the behind-the-scenes content. You can visit the www.theoutdoorteacher.com or follow me on Facebook at theoutdoorteacherUK and LinkedIn, Marina Robb.
The music was written and performed by Geoff Robb. See you next week. Same time, same place.