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outdoor learning page header

As coronavirus-closed schools start to consider reopening one day, the problem of social distancing for a class of children appears insurmountable. This page is to support and encourage those schools exploring outdoor learning as part of their returning solution.

Returning a class of perhaps 30 children into their previous learning space, whilst keeping a social distancing gap of 2 metres clear between them is mathematically (and common sense-ically) impossible. But social distancing is likely to extend well into 2022, on current advice.


If however a significant number of children are learning outside then school reopening eventually is very achievable. Helpfully, many (but sadly not all) schools have reasonable outdoor space.

Even more importantly, outdoor learning is better in several significant ways:

Firstly our Learnometer project has been analysing environmental data from learning spaces. Optimals would be CO2 below 1,000 parts per million, light above 500 lux, temperature 18-21°C, pollution as low as possible, noise below mid 70dB. In many many classrooms that we have surveyed, CO2 is too high (because children breathe), light is poor - often down to barely 100 lux, pollution lingers from the cleaning regime, temperature is too high. In those sub-optimal learning conditions attention, behaviour, performance, recall (and joy!) are all diminished.

Outdoor learning brings optimal CO2, the light is often into thousands of lux, the air circulation keeps temperatures manageable, or at least feeeling better. As I type this page the CO2 inside my workspace is 286% higher than outside, light is 30 times brighter outside, temperature +5°C warmer inside, pollution outside is just trace (I'm by the sea) and indeed all the inside readings are sub-optimal.

We might add that current guidelines on coronavirus emphasises the the role of Vitamin D - which is boosted by outdoor sunlight.

Secondly, movement is important to cognitive function. Much detail here, but put simply movement helps blood circulate oxygen to the brain.

movement graph

The research evidence is encouragingly unequivocal. Above is a simple graph from a long term study published by VS furniture in Germany. Class C who move within lessons have better attentiveness that Class B who move between lessons, and way better that Class A who stay put, at their desks, as teachers come to them. The vertical axis is attentivenesss, the Y axis is time.

This Scientific American article is another one of very many confirming movement makes our brain perform better. It is a quite readable article.

There has been much policy support over the years for outdoor learning - for example this Scottish Government paper on excellence through outdoor learning. Similarly, England's largest outdoor learning project in 2016 emphasised children's better motivation outdoors.

This is not a plea for better playgrounds, play equipment, climbing apparatus, running tracks, parkour routes or more. These things are all useful, but what we are advocating here is simply getting children learning out of doors, in better environments and with movement.

Before the children return it is helpful to encourage parents with outdoor learning activities, to help normalise the outdoor learning back at school. For the youngest children here are a host of great, daily, home learning activities created by Juliette Heppell for the Time and Tide Bell project.

Choose this link to see Juliette's pages in Spanish or to tranlate them into any language


practicalities to consider right now

All schools are unique and you will be thinking how this works in your school, with your community and your context (with your seagulls lol!). As with any behaviour policy you will need your outdoor distancing protocols. However, you might also consider these - no particular order:

writing surfaces - children need a solid surface to write on, even if they are lucky enough to have digital devices (see below) too. Simplest way is to issue A4 clipboards, so order them quick before everyone else does

Mixed age mentoring may help here, if distancing is maintained.



independent learning - direct instruction to the whole group at the same time is not now possible in the traditional class space. That means thinking about direct input to subsets of the class and children away working independently on tasks outdoors. This is a pedagogic challenge, but plenty of schools have already seen the benefits of some autonomous learning. Setting a carousel of tasks helps scaffold this autonomy, but you will have your own strategies. It needs planning now though. Most experience of this ends up with longer blocks of learning time. A more multidisciplinary approach to the curriculum helps too - so, maths through tally charts, fractions through weather gauge data and so on. Mixed age mentoring may help here, if distancing is maintained.


volcano pouring

outdoor clothing - as frequently say to parents "there is no bad weather, only bad clothing". Obviously common sense limits apply. Be clear in messaging home for parents that a substantial part of the learning day will be outdoor. Revisit dress code advice - it needs to be appropriate.

Cheap plastic ponchos are worth a purchase maybe. They are super cheap. Wide brim hats are common in Australian schools, to protect against hot sun. Maybe think of adding them as a uniform item. Consider your drinking fountain provision.


sun hat

mobile devices - mobile devices come into their own here. They offer safety communication for distanced children, they are great data capture devices (microscopes, speed sensors, light meters, etc) and give good www access using the school network rather than requiring parents to pay for a data package. For some schools this is business as usual, others will need to revisit their mobile policies. For those "revisiting" schools, this summary of effective smart phone protocols may be a useful starting point.

In particular independent learners working with others can be done (as we have seen during lockdowns) through screens rather than through proximity. Clearly there are behaviour protocols to establish (see phone protocols above).


mobiles in classroom

indoor outdoor spaces - sometimes the weather is simply too wet, too snowy, too hot for outdoor working, but with social distancing you can't just put everyone back into the classroom. However, once you have established your distancing protocols - and these will be the new norm for quite a long time now, outside of schools too - you can explore using some of your big spaces with those same outdoor protocols - the dining space, the hall, big corridors...

With time you might be able to erect some shelter over parts of your outdoor space, cheaply - sailcloth type shades are effective for both rain and sun.


sail shades

Sun block - for hot weather you will need class supplies of sun protection - spray cans are easiest to quickly apply.

If you've been following our research work on optimising traditional indoor learning spaces you may well already have many plants in your classroom, probably selected from the NASA list. If you don't know about all this, have a look at this page (or in Spanish here). One of the plants is Aloe Vera and breaking off a green branch gives a good supply of natural gel which is great for treating sunburn.


aloe vera plant

social distancing is hardest for the youngest, as anyone who has taught them will know. There is no magic fairy dust here to change that, but making up some 4 metre hoops (use blue water-piping) will help them to visualise what a 2 metre distance looks like.

If you stand in the centre of a 4 metre hoop anyone at the rim is 2 metres away. 4m is a big hoop!


blue hoop

storage trays - from the youngests' primary classrooms to 16-18 science labs, storage trays have kept our learning artefacts ordered and tidy, minimising losses and wastage.

Open trays being carried outdoors are a spillage problem waiting to happen. children never carry them horizontally! Obviously you are not going to replace all your trays, but when you do add trays, buy the ones with lids on.

We work with global suppliers, Gratnells (they distribute our learnometers) but they also produce trays with an antimicrobial system which maybe saves you wiping every tray to reduce infection rates.


trays with lids


No doubt you will have your own ideas too, and this page might get some updates as we exchange some of those. Common sense is important here - talking to your school kitchens, or parents, about providing "portable" food for outdoor eating for example, otherwise lunch will need to have five or six distanced sittings!

Good luck! But fundamentally remember, outdoor learning in many ways is better. Luckliy.

And just a footnote: we are starting a new outdor learning project with Essex LA - will keep this page posted as we progress.

this page last updated by Professor Stephen Heppell on 8/19/21 7:58