Debate: Schools in the wild: building an alternative

The outdoor school craze is a reality. Over the past year, there has been a proliferation of forums encouraging teachers to take their classes out into nature. Pediatricians and doctors have emphasized the benefits of this movement for children's health, and the French Ministry of Education has followed suit, supporting the local initiatives that are springing up everywhere.

Sylvain Wagnon, University of Montpellier


Behind this apparent consensus, however, we need to think about the long-term future of this boom, and propose a real reflection on outdoor teaching, so that the craze is not just a fad, but a different way of teaching.

Linking learning

This outdoor school movement did not originate with the health crisis, and has a very diverse history, principles and practices, with different objectives. Internationally, the Forest school and outdoor school movements offer a real educational alternative. This is far from being the case in France.

Similarly, education for sustainable development, which is supported by associations, is at the heart of a new synergy: a meeting between environmental education associations and schools to support projects.

Beyond the desire to take the class out into nature and "spend a morning outdoors" with the children, this form of learning needs to be considered as part of the curriculum, combining formal and informal knowledge acquisition, and linking learning outside the classroom with more conceptual learning in the classroom.

If the benefits in terms of well-being and health are obvious, what about in terms of learning? Whether it's disciplinary or cross-disciplinary learning, the possibilities are numerous, whatever the age of the pupils.

As for non-formal learning, linked to values such as cooperation, mutual aid and the development of critical thinking, here too there are many opportunities to work with students. Knowing teachers' expectations and supporting them in this process is a major undertaking for the educational establishment.

The eco-pedagogical challenge

Out-of-home teaching is not only justified by its impact on school learning and children's well-being. Doesn't outdoor schooling imply a new pedagogical relationship between teachers and students, as well as a redefinition of the school form?

The eco-pedagogical challenge proposed by l'école en dehors aims to transform educational practices by working from our cultural representations. It's an invitation to set up an education focused on the common good, as proposed by the educational terrestrial areas, which would enable us to revisit man's place in ecosystems.

How can we build another way of teaching regularly, whatever the weather, in a place outside the classroom? The aim is to offer a complementary approach to in-class and out-of-class teaching.

As early as the beginning of the 20th century, Belgian pedagogue Ovide Decroly stressed that, for him, "the classroom was when it rained". In other words, the classroom has its place in learning, but concrete learning in relation to the environment must be a priority.

Also read:
School outdoors: exposure to nature isn't everything!

In 2021, the aim is also to think in terms of teaching in rural as well as urban areas. Initiatives in Paris clearly show that this is possible. The perspectives are multiple and complementary: rethinking school spaces, links with the environment and both formal and informal learning.

Playful approaches

The outdoor school also means developing links with nature within the school itself. The French Ministry of Education, through its E3D label, is keen to publicize teachers' projects and initiatives in this area.

For their part, mayors are stepping up measures to green school grounds, making this movement a reality. It's a far-reaching movement, and one in which France must catch up with other countries such as Canada.

A recent study clearly shows the close link between academic success and contact with nature. Outdoors, an active pedagogy is needed to enhance intellectual and motor activity through experimentation.

Play is also central to nature-based education. Children are free to explore the natural environment, an environment rich in creativity and reflection (they will observe and categorize the elements around them: trees, rocks, leaves, etc.). We must seize every opportunity to make hypotheses, discuss them, ask questions, turn them into a lesson...

Little by little, the teacher learns to suspend what he or she had planned to listen to a bird sing, watch a bicycle go by, feel the wind set the hair in motion. In this way, pupils learn to let go and live in the present moment. Through children's literature, it's easy to reinvest in the classroom what children have discovered in the forest or on the beach, while enriching their knowledge.

Child development

In nature, it's also possible to carry out more formal learning, such as in mathematics, where we can reinvest geometric and arithmetic notions by working on the growth of a tree.

In France, the current boom in out-of-home schooling has seen the first results of a sensory and cognitive approach that takes account of children's development and encourages concrete experiences. This pedagogy gives meaning to children's learning and enables students with special profiles, such as dys or high potential, to learn like others.

See also:
The body at school: a forgotten dimension

Federating local initiatives and evaluating the results of outdoor schooling in France are becoming major challenges for the long-term integration of outdoor schooling into the French public education system. Teaching outdoors can provide a new link with nature and, if integrated into a more global reflection on teaching methods and educational goals, become the pedagogical revolution of the 21st century.

This article was co-written with Corine Martel, PhD in ecology, science-ESD educational advisor for the Hérault region and director of the EducNatu'RE resource center.The Conversation

Sylvain Wagnon, Professor of Education, Faculty of Education, University of Montpellier

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.