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It’s only natural to learn in the great outdoors

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Technology has been vital in supporting learning during the pandemic, however offline, outdoors time is now being offered at one Stirlingshire school in the form of digital detox days, finds Nan Spowart.

TECHNOLOGY has enabled pupils to keep up with their studies during the coronavirus crisis but concerns are being raised about the amount of time they’re spending indoors on screens.

Even before the pandemic, research suggested children in the UK were spending less time outdoors than prison inmates and a study of US pupils showed their screen time had increased by 500 per cent during lockdowns as schools switched to online learning.

Of particular concern is research of more than 120,000 children in China, which suggested short sightedness among six to eight year olds had increased threefold, with the rise thought to have been caused by online learning during lockdown.

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It is not certain whether this was because of the amount of screentime or because children were going outside less often – previous research has pointed to the importance of natural daylight for eye development.

 One study found that sending pupils outside on schooldays for an extra 40 minutes resulted in a 10 per cent decrease in the amount of myopia after three years. Extended periods of time looking at nearby objects such as screens could also affect eye growth, according to specialists.

Spending a lot of time indoors on screens is also thought to affect sleep quality and duration, which are crucial for the development of children’s brains and good mental health.

While the benefits of technology are recognised, too much screen time is also no substitute for face-to-face interaction, which aids social and emotional development.

One school that recognises both the positives and negatives of technology and has taken steps to promote the former while counteracting the latter is Fairview International near Stirling.

Here staff and pupils were already technologically able and well equipped when the pandemic hit and could pivot quickly to online learning.

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“We finished on the Friday when the first lockdown was announced and by Monday the pupils were back on their computers with a full timetable,” says Simone Hempel of Fairview. “We’re very proud of that as the children did a full day with the different teachers and progressed very well. However we recognised they needed a bit of a break from the technology sometimes so we introduced digital detox days.”

These are all about stepping back from technology and are divided into five sections so the pupils could choose between arts and crafts, STEM, physical, language and music activities.

For example, they could choose to be a reporter for the day and write a report on a topic that interested them, such as sport or wildlife, then present this to their family later. Or they could design an invention to help people lead a healthier life, drawing and labelling the invention with the materials used for each part.

The digital detox days were so successful it’s intended to keep them going.

“Kids are onscreen even when they are not at school so these digital detox days get them away from that and back to a bit of normality. If it means baking for a  morning then that’s great,” says Simone.

Fairview has also made an effort to bring the classroom outdoors in an attempt to bring children back to nature.

Increased outdoor time was partly due to the Covid-19 restrictions as, in music lessons for example, singing indoors in groups was banned.

Instead Fairview’s music teacher brought the pupils outdoors to sing where they practised for their performances.

“They were out there in all weathers, even in the depths of December but it didn’t seem to phase them at all,” says Simone. “They liked the novelty and they did several performances outside, including their end of year performance, which we recorded and sent to parents as they were not allowed to be there because of the restrictions.”

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When the rules changed, Fairview could have brought the pupils back inside but instead continue to take many lessons outdoors, including art, maths and science.

This particularly benefited children who had started at the school mid-term or during the pandemic as it brought different age groups together and helped them build friendships in a more relaxed setting.

“It has actually helped all the children settle in after the lockdowns because coming back was a bit daunting even for the teachers,” says Simone.

“When I went back there were two more team members that I had met only on screen so you can imagine what it would have been like for a six year old. Being outside and being able to interact with each other helped as they were not tied to their own classrooms.”

It is not just the pupils who benefit from the variety of learning outside. The teachers also find it can help inspire and motivate their pupils and they themselves enjoy the challenge of adapting lessons to the outside world, according to Simone.

Building on classroom learning, outside lessons can be more interactive and “hands-on”, showing children what they learn can have practical applications in the real world.

“The outdoors can provide a context for learning in many areas and learning outside can provide a deeper understanding of challenging concepts,” says Simone.

 

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Experience of green spaces reduces stress and boosts learning

EVIDENCE suggests that bringing the classroom outdoors can improve student engagement, behaviour and raise achievement.

A recent report by England’s Ofsted found it contributed significantly to improved standards, while aiding pupils’ social and emotional development.

Learning outside gives more opportunities for developing soft skills, such as teamwork, leadership, critical thinking, decision making and problem solving, according to educationalists. Studies also show being in green spaces – around trees or grass – reduces stress and improves attention span.

Pupils with access to natural play areas, learning environments with greener views and a greater number of plants have demonstrated a lower level of stress.

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HeraldScotland:

Whether it’s examining leaves, creepy crawlies, using a compass or working on a gardening project, outdoor learning gives practical experience pupils tend to soak up.

It is not only soft skills that can be developed through outdoor learning – it can easily feed into curriculum areas such as maths and science. 

Children appear to like the novelty and appreciate being able to escape the confines of the classroom, while being in the fresh air can reinvigorate them and increase attention span. At Fairview International School near Stirling there are six and a half acres of campus.

This gives the pupils plenty of opportunity to experience nature whether it is during outdoor learning, or taking part in PE.

“Now that they are back in school our pupils are still making good use of the technology and can transition from online sessions with Google Classroom to live lessons quickly, but we are also encouraging them to get outdoors as much as possible for exercise and fresh air,” says Principal David Hicks.

“We encourage our pupils to believe in themselves while still respecting the views of others and in our IB Primary programme, in particular, the children respond very positively to issues concerning wildlife. They want to put the world right – to know, for example, why deforestation is still happening and what can be done to stop more animals from going extinct.

“We encourage them to take action, to recognise what they can do to make a difference and this helps to make them responsible and caring individuals from a young age.”

 

This article is brought to you in partnership with Fairview International as part of The Herald’s Future of Education campaign.

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