On certain afternoons here at Hazlegrove a curious transformation takes place. Classroom walls disappear. School tables and chairs vanish, exercise books sit unopened and pencil cases are left untouched. Uncomfortable school shoes are gratefully kicked off and replaced with wellys. Raincoats are pulled on in anticipation (because we live in England) and we leave the confines of the classroom and bid farewell to the comfortable indoor world.
It must be time for Outdoors Ed! On these eagerly-awaited afternoons, we up sticks and move into the biggest and wildest classroom in the world; the Great Outdoors.
Once outside, a wriggly line of Year 3’s gather to take a roll call. The children are wide awake, having shaken off their post-lunch stupor and emerged blinking into the sunlight. Like dazed puppies, they are tripping over themselves to get into the woods and make a start.
The ground is muddy underfoot and squelches loudly. A strong temptation to roll down the grassy bank is resisted, for now. We sit down under the parachute and hear the wind swaying tree branches above us and the call of faraway birdsong. The parachute is heavy with rain from this morning’s shower, so I borrow a large stick to jab at the water.
‘Stand under here if you want to get wet,’ I say.
The water falls with a slap onto the assembled seven year olds, who squeal and scream with delight when it lands on their heads and drips down their collars. It is muddy and black and mixed with mulchy leaves but they don’t mind. Getting wet is an essential element of any good Outdoors Ed session. The children look forward to it and understand that it’s not a matter of if, only when.
Today’s activity involves the children foraging for materials to make tree bridges, to save forest creatures the inconvenience of having to cross the forest floor. Bridges are to be wide enough for two squirrels to walk side by side, and must be able to support the weight of a car tyre that we have lying around the woods.
We go over some useful knots and talk about weaving branches and vines together. Children choose team names and discuss tactics with wide-eyed enthusiasm and the kind of zeal usually reserved for football team selection or getting someone else into trouble. Group leaders emerge and begin to dominate with organisational aplomb.
Boundaries are explained: ‘Don’t go any further than the brambles that way and the cedar tree over there; you can’t climb trees taller than you; don’t eat anything growing on the trees; and don’t argue over branches. Try not to get stung by nettles. Wasps are best left alone. Off you go!’
The woods are immediately abuzz with activity and chatter. Territories are staked and briefly contested. One of the best things about teaching outdoors is the luxury of space; there is room for all and no shortage of trees and leaves. Arguments are usually solved with a minimum of fuss. There are just so many better things to be doing.
Groups start working together, trading advice and showing off grand designs. ‘We’re making this one from scratch,’ says a budding Christopher Wren. ‘It has steps going up here and these leaves are traffic lights.’ There is a good amount of gloating from one group who discover a ready made pile of wood, now guarded jealously.
The afternoon draws on, and with five minutes to go all that remains is to give a helping hand to a group struggling with string and encourage one or two boys off the rope swing.
Et voilà! The tree bridges are finished, and they are incredible. Some come with supporting branches laid over each other, others with decorative leaves and vines. One has a walkway going in both directions, with a dividing line of string. One appears to be channeling London’s Tower Bridge, with ambitious towers of mud and twigs.
The children are all immensely proud of their efforts, and fairly complimentary towards their classmates’ creations. They are all smiling, with glowing cheeks and muddy hands. It only every school day could end on such a high.
Just enough time for a quick game of manhunt before heading back to class. I turn a blind eye as children take it in turns to roll down the grassy bank on the way.
Outdoors Ed is the highlight of many a school week, including my own. What a privilege to be able to introduce children to the wonders of nature. Come rain or shine, it is always worthwhile to get out there and bring a dose of fresh air and sunlight into the school day. Children gain an incredible amount from time spent outdoors. There is so much learning going on, and not a textbook or worksheet in sight. It’s what education should be all about.
Now take your wellies off before going inside. Wash your hands please. No, you can’t bring your sticks into the classroom. Or that snail. The same applies to caterpillars.
See you next week.