Outdoor Learning

Term started at Bolton School last month with the new Year 12 heading off to our Lake District Outdoor Centre at Patterdale. They competed in teams to complete an ambitious journey across the Lake District undertaking challenges – some went by water, some chose high level walking. One group woke to sunny skies, having camped at altitude, to find the cloud base beneath them in the valley. This week the last of the new Year 7 visits have finished – rock climbing, kayaking and a day long mountain walk form this programme. Every boy visits Patterdale every year for a variety of different experiences.

Outdoor learning forms part of the curriculum of many schools – from world famous schools such as Gordonstoun to many of the primary schools of Bolton. So just what is it that makes adventure in the outdoors an important part of education?

First, the activities themselves can provide life long memories. Camping in the hills, a great days sailing or completing a rock climb are all the things from which indelible memories are made and such happy memories help our well-being. Being in the outdoors is good for us as humans, so we reconnect with the natural world much more than is normally possible. We can be mindful, have some space for reflection and experience a change of pace.

And those activities provide skills that will themselves be useful and perhaps form future hobbies – map reading, sailing or making a camp fire are all useful skills for life.

However, the main value of Outdoor Learning, and the reason why it is part of so many school experiences, is what we learn about ourselves on such a trip.

The Outdoors can provide challenge, whether it be surviving the weather or completing the task, which is out of the ordinary. Pupils face problems that are new to them all and have to overcome them. This often requires team work and these are the first stages of finding out how you will work in a team later in life. Leadership skills begin to form, from those who will sit back and think compared to those who run right in.

Resilience in facing the need to go forward because you can’t go back in a rock climb or to reach the far shore paddling a kayak is transferred back to the classroom and everyday life. In normal school it is all too possible to give up. In the Outdoors that is sometimes not an option and pupils need to find new reserves within themselves.

Mindfulness, happiness and resilience are currently very popular trends in education. All are readily achieved through a rather more traditional part of an education – the great outdoors.


About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is Headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists.