Teaching in Nature

Summary Findings

Commissioned Research for Scottish Natural Heritage
Contracted Researcher: Faculty of Social Sciences (Education), University of Stirling, Scotland
Year of publication: 2011
Full report available from SNH Publications


SNH has a remit for people's enjoyment and understanding of the natural heritage as well as the care of it. The potential for the educational use of National Nature Reserves (NNRs) (and similar 'wild' places for nature) is not well understood. This research was designed to enable practicing teachers from primary and secondary schools to collaboratively explore how National Nature Reserves could be used as sites for outdoor educational provision across a range of subject areas. This work was conducted within the context of the new national curriculum initiative in Scotland, Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) (LTS, 2010). For further information (including video of outdoor excursions, lesson plans, and supporting commentaries), visit the project website: http://teachinginnature.stir.ac.uk The research was funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and supported by The General Teaching Council of Scotland (GTCS).

Main findings

Teachers' Experiences and Outcomes

All teachers, whether novice or more expert in teaching out of doors, developed their expertise through working collaboratively on planning and executing teaching in nature. Key tasks included making advance visits, discussing their ideas with others, making initial and repeat visits, and creating purposeful, meaningful activities with their pupils. This work affected how teachers viewed themselves as educators as the outdoor context demanded a different role from them. Teachers who perceived themselves to be 'outdoor-novices' faced particular challenges when planning excursions. They found sharing experiences among colleagues and making repeat visits helped to address initial concerns. Handling contingencies (such as weather and terrain) and generally being open to the unexpected (such as encounters with wildlife) were important when teaching in nature. Excursions in NNRs helped with meeting formal curricular demands of Curriculum for Excellence and provided opportunities for teaching in both an inter-disciplinary and a single–subject manner. Evidence suggested that teaching and learning in nature could be a very purposeful and meaningful practice for teachers and pupils.

Pupils' Experiences and Outcomes

In all cases, pupils valued spending time and learning in nature. Excursions and related activities in the classroom helped generate an aesthetic and caring appreciation of the natural environment and new understandings about human-environment relations. A range of teaching strategies were employed which sensitised pupils to the natural place, or took the place as an essential starting point for learning. While on trips, pupils valued having time for engagement in tasks that included investigation, observation, play and exploration. The educational excursions provided multi-sensorial experiences of nature that were very memorable and valued highly. Repeat visits made a particular difference to the quality and depth of understanding and engagement with natural places. In all cases, pupils and teachers noted that going outdoors for teaching and learning in nature changed and improved relations among pupils and teachers. Teaching in nature also enabled opportunities for greater enthusiasm, attentiveness and focus in pupils' learning, improved health and physical ability, and self-esteem in pupils.

Enhancing Provisions

The research indicates that initial teacher education (ITE) and continuing professional development (CPD) programmes dedicated to teaching in nature would be advised to include some key activities and take account of some key factors. These include opportunities for staff to develop their own expertise through providing a supportive context for teachers to actively plan, execute and review excursions and related teaching. ITE and CPD in this area will also need to take account of the role of the outdoor natural place itself (and how it could be responded to), the teachers' biographies and dispositions, the role of the teacher when outdoors, the teaching strategies chosen, the school context, and the availability of other wider supports such as transport and finance and curricular relevance.

Key Activities of Teachers

Primary school and secondary school teachers, whether novice or expert in teaching out of doors, planned, prepared, and enacted their visits through:

  1. working collaboratively with other teachers in this work,
  2. making advance visits to sites before taking their pupils,
  3. designing opportunities for pupils' purposeful, ethical and material practices and ensuring the natural place was a key element in these practices,
  4. making initial and repeat visits with their pupils, often with support from parents or specialist staff,
  5. engaging pupils in the chosen topic before visits and between visits, both in the classroom and sometimes in their communities,
  6. planning for, and attending to the multi-sensorial dimensions of pupils' experiences,
  7. striking a balance between (a) planning tasks that were more predictable, and (b) allowing for tasks and experiences to be flexible and responsive to the place.

Key Valuations

All teachers and the pupils valued:

  1. the opportunity for first hand experience of these special natural places,
  2. encounters with aspects of nature, particularly other species,
  3. distinctive and memorable multi-sensorial aspects of experiences,
  4. the opportunity for a more relaxed or less hurried approach,
  5. the opportunity for participatory engagement in fun, yet purposeful, group- and self-directed tasks outdoors,
  6. opportunities to get to know a natural place better,
  7. opportunities for new challenges that came with taking teaching and learning outdoors into nature.

There were a range of valued benefits and effects of outdoor educational experiences in nature. These included the potential for:

  1. greater enthusiasm, attentiveness, and focus in pupils' learning,
  2. improved health and physical ability, and self-esteem in pupils,
  3. enriched and more inclusive cultures of learning within class groups, brought about through changed and improved relations among pupils, and between teachers and pupils.

Teachers valued the way outdoor visits could:

  1. be focal points for projects and provide a platform for learning and changing pupils relations with nature
  2. help with meeting formal curricular demands, for example the experiences and outcomes of Curriculum for Excellence,
  3. provide the opportunity for either inter- / multi-disciplinary study or single–subject approaches to teaching a variety of topics,
  4. provide opportunities to develop their own expertise through engaging in the key activities (see A above).

Key Factors

Project activities were made possible through the interaction of key factors, any one of which could work as an enabler, or as an inhibitor affecting the aims and objectives, the process of preparing and planning, and the enactment and outcomes.

Place Factors

Teacher Factors: Dispositions & Knowledge

School Factors

Teaching and Learning Process Factors

Wider Support Factors

Implications of the Findings for Enhancing Provisions

Summary of Implications for ITE and CPD

Overall, from this research, we infer three main implications for viable approaches to ITE and CPD for teaching in nature.