Moving classes outside can improve test scores, wellbeing: report

At least one day a week, Amanda Lloyd's year 4 class can be found building shelters in the playground or drawing maps as they walk around the school.

It could be mistaken as a break from class, but the students are actually in the middle of their science, geography, maths and English lessons.

Dr Lloyd, a part-time teacher at St Mary's Star of the Sea primary school in Milton on NSW's south coast, is also a leading researcher in outdoor learning and an advocate of moving away from desks and whiteboards.

Dr Amanda Lloyd, a part-time teacher at St Mary's Star of the Sea primary school in Milton on NSW's south coast.
Dr Amanda Lloyd, a part-time teacher at St Mary's Star of the Sea primary school in Milton on NSW's south coast. Photo: Supplied

"Whatever outcomes can be achieved inside, if we can do that outside it's even better," she said.

"At the moment, we're looking at [the use and nature of] different materials in science and what we're doing is building shelters.

"In English, we're looking at the text The Great Expedition, so the children map out a route and dramatise it by walking around the playground. They take lots of photos and show it all in PowerPoint presentations with literacy outcomes.

"It's all standard curriculum material being done outside."

Outdoor learning has been found to improve students' mental and physical health, resilience, critical thinking, problem solving skills, emotional intelligence and performance in class tests, according to a new report by Planet Ark based on local and international research.

However, only a small proportion of Australian teachers have incorporated regular outdoor time into their classes.

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Nearly 30 per cent of teachers spend no class time outside and another 30 per cent spend less than 15 minutes outside every week, according to the Planet Ark study of 200 primary and high school teachers, which was conducted in April and released this month.

In comparison, Finnish students, who regularly rank at the top in OECD maths, science and reading tests and wellbeing indicators, are required to be outside for 15 minutes every hour.

The Australian curriculum introduced guidelines on outdoor learning for the first time in 2015 but does not formally require that teachers spend class time outside.

Outdoor learning has been found to improve students' mental and physical health, resilience, critical thinking, problem ...
Outdoor learning has been found to improve students' mental and physical health, resilience, critical thinking, problem solving skills, emotional intelligence and performance in class tests. Photo: Mario Borg

The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), which develops syllabuses for all NSW schools, does not provide any instruction on outdoor teaching other than during physical development classes.

"It's incredibly important that formal structures for outdoor learning be put in place," Dr Lloyd said.

"There needs to be less focus on standardised testing and the drive to push through curriculum, which mean incidental learning from what's happening around us is being missed.

"If we want our schools to meet worldwide standards, we need to help teachers incorporate these things into a crowded curriculum. In places like Finland and Denmark, their timetable is quite flexible and they just program in time outside."

Dr Lloyd's own year-long study, in which she took a year 1 class outside for a half or full day every week in 2014, found that all students improved "at or above the standard rate" in reading, writing and vocabulary.

"It takes away the stress of always having to be right in the classroom," Dr Lloyd said. "Their oral skills and vocabulary improved because they were not scared to practise them outside in an informal environment.

"They were more focused, more engaged and on task because it had real-world meaning, and they had those softer skills to achieve more in the classroom as well.

"Some of the kids who came in quite timid at the beginning of the year became leaders once we got them outside, and that confidence transferred to all areas of their lives."

Dr Lloyd is currently working with other teachers at St Mary's Star of the Sea to show them how to teach the NSW curriculum outside.

Renee Pearson, a year 4 teacher at the school, said she has been "blown away" by the changes she has seen since her students started learning outside.

"The change in their perseverance, problem solving, focus and respect for each other is incredible," Mrs Pearson said.

"It trickles back into the classroom. They're more willing to have a go at things like maths and they work much better in groups."

Dr Lloyd said being outside forces children to adapt quickly to changes in weather or terrain, helping them to better develop skills like critical thinking and problem solving.

About 60 per cent of the teachers surveyed identified these ''soft skills'' as the most important qualities students will need for the future. Only 4 per cent ranked science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills among the top attributes needed to solve "the world's challenges". 

NSW Department of Education secretary Mark Scott also highlighted the importance of teaching critical thinking, creativity and empathy recently.

"We need to teach students to find and make meaning in their learning not to simply master a list of skills," Mr Scott said.

"I think great teachers can embed things like critical thinking in what are they are teaching every day."

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