PRIMARY school pupils learn better by spending more time playing outdoors and less time studying in the classroom, a report has found.
Researchers said outdoor lessons and “free play” helped children learn independently and could be more effective than classroom-based activities in the early years of school.
The research, carried out by educationalists at Plymouth University with backing from the Economic and Social Research Council, is a welcome boost for Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, which seeks to promote outdoor learning. The study, which was carried out in partnership with the University of St Mark and St John in Plymouth and the University of London’s Institute of Education, equipped 32 pre-school children with digital audio recorders which they wore in brightly-coloured pouches.
Fifteen children were then followed into their first year of primary school, with a total of 192 recordings made of their play and conversations.
Sue Waite, the project’s lead researcher, said: “Outdoor learning had a different quality from the teacher-led lessons which took place in the classroom.
“Outdoor spaces offer opportunities for children to be more creative, inquiring and socially skilled, as they can pursue their own lines of interest and talk together. In classrooms, dominated by specific learning outcomes and teachers talking, it’s very easy for learning to become something which is spoon-fed.”
The researchers found outdoor play and learning could make an important contribution in helping children make the transition from pre-school to primary. They called for play to become a bigger part of the English curriculum.
In contrast, Scotland has already followed the example of Scandinavian countries to make play a much bigger part of the school day. A number of local authorities have already adopted play strategies.
Proponents argue play helps improve children’s health and wellbeing, making them more likely to overcome problems in their schooling.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Curriculum for Excellence, which begins at three years old and continues to the end of a child’s school journey, offers opportunities for all young people to benefit from outdoor learning.”
Maureen McKenna, executive director of education at Glasgow City Council, added: “Schools and nurseries have been very innovative. Our plan is to build on existing outdoor learning successes.”
Case study: ‘Play improves mental health’
At Lorne Primary School in Leith, outdoor play has become an increasingly important part of the pupils’ day.
Headteacher Colin McLean said he hoped the school would follow the lead of countries such as Norway where primary-aged children spend up to half the day outside, despite the weather.
The school is planning to upgrade its playground to make it more suitable for the demands of Curriculum for Excellence. “It’s really about improving the quality of play for children, but also looking for opportunities to teach science, maths and English outside as well.
“Play improves wellbeing and mental health. If children come into class in the morning happy, then they learn better.
“At the moment, about 10 to 15 per cent of a pupil’s time is spent outside, but that will have to change. When I was a child, I was jumping across burns and out of trees. If we can reintroduce some of that sort of play, then it has to be a good thing.”