Chris Packham the man behind BBC’s Naturewatch series once proclaimed that everybody should eat at least a couple of tadpoles. Whilst the idea might seem quite repulsive on the surface, he was trying to make a more serious point and fuel the battle for outdoor learning.
Dr Richard Louv argues that today’s children spend too much indoors and are growing up with nature deficiency disorder. In an examination driven education agenda youngsters are able to identify unnecessary grammatical terms and have a formula for using exclamation marks but probably won’t recognise the sound of a robin singing. In reality children receive little encouragement to be outdoors. There are housing estates are surrounded by ‘No Ball Games’ signs. One local council decided not to erect basketball posts in a park for the fear it would attract children. Two years ago Northumbria police cars were despatched to investigate complaints about loud and teenagers. They arrived to find a group of girls building a den in Walkworth Woods. To confound issues further the former education minister Michael Gove once wrote children learn best sat in rows, reciting poetry and learning the Kings and Queens of England.
The truth is children of all ages learn well outdoors. Even Ofsted tell us that memorable experiences lead to memorable learning and the place where the learning takes place adds to the value. With the support of the National Association of Small Schools, this was precisely the message I took to Clough and Risegate Primary School during a training day in Lincolnshire during March 2018.
In my recent book ‘Dare to be Different’, our fictional hero headteacher Brian Smith listens very carefully to the guidance delivered by his political leaders. However he then achieves greatness through doing the exact opposite. Therefore, in response to Mr Gove’s comment about children needing to be seated in rows Brian places an emphasis on children of all ages frequently learning outdoors. The book contains 33 ideas of how children could and should take their learning outdoors on a regular basis. However the teachers of Clough and Risegate focussed on just two elements aimed at developing exceptional literacy and art work.
I wonder if you have you ever thought about where a great novelist begins their work? It seems unlikely that they sit behind a desk juggling words around to achieve the kind of writing formula that is imposed by the National Curriculum’s assessment regime. The reality is they take themselves to the location that becomes their story setting and start to drink it in through their senses. Charles Dickens argued that a vivid story setting included more than a visual sense of setting alone. He considered that details such as the smell, feel and sound of a place were equally important because they allow it to be distinguished from any other location. If you want an example, this is Dickens’ description of Coketown in Hard Times;
It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black … It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.
I have always believed that the outdoor environment is a valuable resource that teachers can use to create passionate, skilled and exciting writers. This was precisely the message I took to rural Lincolnshire on that March morning. The early spring sunshine brought a warmth that quickly burned away the overnight frost. The rooks were nesting as the teachers armed with clipboards selected an appropriate part of the school grounds to begin their challenge of emulating the writing of Dickens.
The next ninety minutes were focussed on two techniques which I have developed with primary aged pupils over the last forty years. The first element is through an approach known as the sensory trail. Armed with a range of support materials the teachers moved to a location within the school grounds and with the aid of a partner started to describe the things they could see. Often these were things they may never have noticed before. They were encouraged to enrich their verbal language during this process though the use of similes, metaphors, alliteration and onomatopoeia. Some teachers may have even delighted the grammar pedants by using a fronted adverbial clause. In the first instance the emphasis was on spoken language but eventually the teachers still working in pairs went on to note down some of the phrases they considered helped to paint a picture with words.
The next challenge was to see the environment through closed eyes. Having read that sentence I know that you will thinking… it is impossible to see when your eyes are closed? The reality is that when you close your eyes it seems like your sense of hearing improves, Therefore the challenge now becomes to use exciting language with your partner in order to describe the sounds that could be heard from both near and far. After this attention moves to the sense of touch taste and smell. By now a significant amount of rich and vivid language will have been used to describe the location. There will actually be an intense desire to start to write. However, whilst it is nearly the time to write it is not quite the time to write.
One of the refreshing elements of the current national curriculum is the emphasis placed on observational art. Henry Matisse once said that creativity takes courage and so with these words ringing in their ears the teachers overcame their initial fears and set about producing a small but detailed sketch based around their location. Some were even braver and put their pencils down and reached for water colour paints. I believe that art can be described as poetry without words and is just as much a form of communication and expression as spoken or written language. In reality the truth is the two are inextricably linked. When a sketch is being carefully produced words and phrases relating to size, colour and texture will be formulating in the artists mind. Once again through discussion these words and phrases enriched and then recorded.
By now you will have noticed the emphasis placed on paired working. I have always believed that children in our primary schools spend too much time writing alone. There is no doubt books that the books I have written have always benefitted from the considered contribution of publishing editors, proof readers and close friends. This is why whenever I work directly with children I emphasise collaboration and that we are all responsible for ensuring that everybody succeeds in a way that reflects personal excellence.
By this stage the hard work was done, and the teachers set about producing a fabulous description of a location. The words created pictures as vivid as Charles Dicken’s description of Coketown which mean that they could be used to create a gripping story setting. The teachers were rightly proud of their efforts but there was a further bonus. Each participant had a produced a piece of high quality observational art work.
As I drove away the teachers reflected on their considerable achievements and decide that just for once they would create a display of their own beautiful work.