Feeling overwhelmed by the idea of changing, or creating new Outdoor Learning spaces? Then look in front of you. Standing before you are future designers, architects, builders and team leaders; children with a whole host of skills and talents waiting to be unleashed.
Involving children in the planning, and changing, of outdoor spaces has many benefits. Giving children a voice in shaping their learning environment is a powerful way to evoke a true sense of ownership, promoting a deeper connection to a physical space.
When I first started working as an Outdoor Learning teacher, I had the good fortune of moving into a space that had already been lovingly established as an Outdoor Learning Environment. However, after teaching in the garden for a few months I realised that some of the areas, although beautiful, were rarely used as learning spaces. Time for a change. But what would be a better use of the space? I wasn’t a well- seasoned Outdoor Learning Teacher and didn’t want to make changes without purpose. Cue the children.
Step 1: Assess
Take the time to assess together what the challenge is, and why it is important to take action. Like adults, understanding the ‘why’ motivates children to actively participate and take ownership of the process.
Working together to map the garden and colour code areas according to the identified issue enables you to survey the space as a whole and highlight where the issue is the most prevalent.
Step 2: Design
As a teacher, I am responsible for the learning environment but it is not my classroom. It belongs to the 60 First Grade children who enter and explore the garden each day. So we need to ask what do they want? How can we create spaces that inspire curiosity, where children can ask questions and inquire?
Too often, it is at this point that we as teachers, take the ownership back. We are trained professionals who have years of experience in providing children with the best learning environments and we worry that the children will get it ‘wrong’. Of course, you may have a general idea of what you would like to create, and no, a swimming pool with dolphins splashing around is probably not going to happen, but allowing children to design with you is important.
In the design phase, children can become researchers, collecting ideas from both primary and secondary sources to support their thinking. Visit other learning spaces too, sit down and sketch, take photographs, and ask questions!
Step 3: Create
This is my favourite stage; Now it’s time to cash in your wonderful hours of free labour! Save your own muscles, get out the tools and watch those plans come to life. During this stage children learn to follow designs and develop resilience when plans need amending. They are challenged to become problem solvers, risk takers and communicators as they work together to achieve a shared goal.
Since first utilising this approach and witnessing the positive impact that it had on children’s love and respect for their learning space, I look frequently for more opportunities to take shared action. Together we have built pathways to protect the grass in areas of heavy footfall and created different habitats to support a greater variety of wildlife.
So whether you work with four, or eighteen year olds never underestimate children’s ability to work together and make big changes.