Effects of an outdoor education intervention on the mental health of schoolchildren
Article  in  Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning · March 2012.  Authors: Per E. Gustafsson, Anders Szczepanski, Nina Nelson, & Per A. Gustafsson.

This research article was useful in my own reflection of the past term’s outdoor learning with upper primary children at my school. The findings were a useful way for me to evaluate my own practice because the outcomes mirrored some of my own thoughts and experiences.

The researchers state: ‘Outdoor education has the potential to become an integrative, complementary education form in a pragmatic and progressive pedagogy tradition, which can offer students and teachers opportunities to learn on the basis of observations and experiences in authentic situations’ (p.3). This was how I approached the planning of activities – authentic and meaningful and in some way linked to DT, PHSCE and PE, amongst other curriculum subjects, but taught informally. I was aware that the purpose was to expand children’s possibilities out of the classroom and provide opportunity through greater physical movement to develop pro-learning and pro-social behaviours, including personal attributes such as ‘resilience’ and ‘creativity’.

Planning came through observed behaviours and responses which informed curriculum mapping on a weekly basis. I agree with the researchers that this way of working, or rather ‘[t]his perspective on knowledge and learning, where a diverse learning environment is emphasized, contrasts with the traditional educational system, which is based on theoretical knowledge taught in a classroom setting and which limits the interactions between emotions, actions and thoughts‘. I was kept on my toes as I responded at times intuitively, and always physically, through planned and initiated activity, questioning the children continually in order to develop their verbal reflective responses and aid group participation. While I encouraged everyone to stick photos and reflective notes in their OL scrapbooks, I did not insist upon this but used an incentive – a gold star sticker – if they could indicate achievement in an identified learning area that had been previously agreed (my LO). This was the award system set up to collect stars that were PSHE and citizenship related – pro social behaviours earnt a reward. This became popular and contributed towards improved learning behaviours.

Mental health:

This study mentions: ‘academic achievement and mental health are reciprocally related; that early school failures and in particular reading difficulties cause internalizing and externalizing mental health problems; that problems of academic achievement and mental health tend to be stable over time; that investment of time and effort in schoolwork without achieving expected outcomes is related to development of depression’ …’ but that relations with peers and teachers also can protect against development of mental health problems’.  A very important focus of taking learning outdoors was the development of a learning relationship. I found that by providing key rules that were repeatedly spoken of in a group situation established a calm environment where expectations were understood. This combined with the freedom of movement, enhanced the scope of learning because there was trust and a sense of common purpose provided for by the learning experience I had planned.

As children were learning differently outside the classroom, how they recorded their learning was through suggestion and choice. I noticed that even this approach resulted in individual children recording their work in an increasingly ‘self-established’ routinised way. The point was that they were reflecting and recording through drawing or words, and sharing these ideas with their peers in conversation. It is a noisier way to work and leads to untidiness at times, however, the mood was positive and output purposeful. I put this laxity in approach down to my early years teacher experience! Working differently does not mean children do not achieve results – they just find out what suits them at this time. As I noticed a general improvement in behaviour over the sessions, I must agree with the researchers that relationship is key to good mental health. Undoubtedly, the fact that I was not their regular class teacher gave permission for the classes to experience learning differently and develop a new adult-child working relationship away from the classroom. The main benefits were seen in their own improved self-regulation around completeing set tasks and in listening to adults.

Boys and girls outdoors

Is learning outdoors gender neutral? The article said ‘no’! Boys tend to prefer to engage with greater physical activity like sport because ‘boys generally report more positive perceptions about their physical capabilities than do girls due to the nature of physical activity’, mentions the article, because ‘physical education is typically a stereotypical, ‘gendered’, practice‘ (p.11). Interestingly, the findings mention that the boys mental-health had marginally improved during the study, however, the girls mental-health stayed largely the same. Reasons: girls internalise mental health issues and boys benefit from increased physicality of the outdoors because they are better adapted experientially.

The important question is how do we meet the needs of the girls if boys needs are particularly suited to the outdoor intervention and the girls apparently aren’t? This opens up a whole new vista of how we learn at school and why girls excel at certain areas and boys not, and vice versa. I noted that in my practice the boys were on nearly all occassions more vocal, physical and outwardly confident, however, the neatest best recorded work was generally an all girl achievement. Clearly there are the dynamics of a particular class group and their personal exposure to the outdoors that influences outcomes. This article made me think deeply about providing a more generalised experience and valuing the different contributions of  boys and girls, whilst encouraging all to take a risk and try the new. A complex task that may be achieved by more mixed groups next term.

OL and mental health are really important areas in education today, and this research article shows that there is a link between the two areas that can result in positive outcomes for all if we pay attention to the individual needs and expectations from boys and girls. Challenging gendered beliefs will be a goal next term.


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