Teaching, Learning and Play in the Outdoors: a national survey of provisions in schools and pre-schools

Funded by NatureScot (Formerly Scottish Natural Heritage).

Collaboration with Education Scotland and National Agency National Parks.

In Scottish pre-schools and schools, through the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence and other policies, it has become an expectation that pupils will receive opportunities to learn outdoors within subject areas and in interdisciplinary studies. This expectation needs empirical investigation. To what extent, in what ways, and with what impacts are schools and pre-schools utilising the school grounds, local areas, and other places beyond as settings for the delivery of Curriculum for Excellence? Unlike surveys that ask schools to report in hindsight on provisions of outdoor learning, this research collected evidence from teachers themselves about a large number of individual learning events over two comparable periods during the summer terms of 2006 and 2014. The survey generated data from random and non-randomly sampled[1] pre-schools and schools across Scotland about outdoor learning event durations, locations, foci, and other contextual aspects. Using over 1000 records of outdoor events across both surveys, we can construct a comprehensive account of a national changing picture since the inception of Curriculum for Excellence. This report provides new baseline measures on the impacts of taking learning outdoors. There is significant evidence on how outdoor learning provision is understood to enhance engagement, and challenge and enjoyment, for example. We can also report on the prevalence of themes in learning (such as sustainable development), the association of going outdoors with the pedagogical approaches taken (such as cooperative learning), and the effect of schools’ locations in areas of deprivation on provision. [1] In 2006, we collected data from both randomly selected and non-randomly selected schools and pre-schools. The non-random sub-set of schools and pre-schools that were well known for offering a comprehensive curriculum outdoors. In 2006, ‘more active outdoor’ primary and secondary schools recorded substantially higher averages (68 minutes in primaries and 39 minutes in secondary) per pupil per week. This indicates that schools across the system still have some way to go to match the top end provision we know is possible. Indeed, many individual schools sitting well below 2014 averages have the potential to make significant increases. As these teachers reported it, taking learning outdoors has the general effect of making learning and play more active and collaborative, enhancing the levels of challenge and enjoyment and other aspects across a wide range of subjects and interdisciplinary areas including sustainable development. Outdoor learning is now a key part of the formally delivered curriculum with enormous potential to enrich the curricular experience of pupils but there are key challenges in reorienting and raising the durations of provision in all sectors. Overall, evidence suggests that outdoor educational provisions in school and pre-schools have increased over time but we cannot claim to be providing a comprehensive, balanced or inclusive educational experience outdoors in Scotland. Data indicate that a further doubling or more of average durations is realistically achievable in schools whilst further increases and developments are also possible in pre-schools. There are particular issues and challenges in secondary schools and in all schools in areas of deprivation. Utilising more teacher-led, local, low-cost provisions in grounds and in local areas are one obvious way in which many schools may consider raising levels of provision but this will not happen without a comprehensive programme of support. Neither would such address the lower incidence of, for example, residential events in schools in areas of deprivation.

Total award value £21,927.00

People (2)


Professor Gregory Mannion

Professor Gregory Mannion

Professor, Education

Dr Marina Shapira

Dr Marina Shapira

Associate Professor, Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology

Outputs (3)


Research Report

Mannion G (2013) Career-­long Professional Learning for Teaching Outdoors. Higher Education Academy. A Curriculum for Excellence Scholarship Project: Strengthening Partnerships Across Scotland’s Education Sectors (SPASES). Online.