A project initially aimed at combating low levels of language skills among reception class children is encouraging them to re-live indoors the exciting challenges and achievements of their outdoor learning.
The children capture their learning in the forest garden at Ashbrow Infant and Nursery School, Huddersfield, using recording microphones and digital cameras. They then review and recall their experiences indoors.
'By taking the learning that has taken place outdoors back indoors, children are able to make connections between different areas, experiences and concepts in their lives,' says Jo Liversidge, the school's Forest School teacher and ICT co-ordinator.
'In the autumn term 2008, 16 children in my class of 25 reception-aged children were boys. Many had low levels of language, so I wanted some way to promote the speaking and listening from the outside learning and bring it inside.'
Independent education consultant and ICT specialist Chris Hargrave, who advised the school on the equipment to use, says, 'The idea is to try to capture the moment of experience in the forest garden for the children and then take the experience back into the class where it can be replayed to them, effectively putting their minds back in the moment of learning. This we did using digital cameras, microphones and Photo Story 3, a free piece of software from Microsoft. The advantage of using Photo Story 3 was that we could edit together visual, auditory, and text-based material that had been captured.
'In this way we could give the children a multi-sensory reminder of an experience, linked to their experience and ongoing learning. This sounds highly technical but is actually fairly simple to achieve.
'The materials created could then be used the next hour, session, day, week and so on. They appeared to instantly transport the children back to their experiences within the Forest garden.'
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
'I haven't formally evaluated it,' says Mrs Liversidge. 'But I know it has made a difference. The driving force has been the positive impact on the personal and social side for the children: boundaries, risk-taking and developing relationships.
'I don't have proof, but I know the class gelled fantastically well. The emphasis has been on working as a team and taking responsibility for one's own actions. When you are responsible for your own learning you feel in charge of it, even if it takes three sessions to be brave enough to walk across grass that is not mowed and is long and scary, which was the case for one child.
'Using the Easi-speak recording microphones, we found the children were talking when they were together outdoors much more than if an adult had been around. We could leave the Easi-speaks out and then listen to what they had been saying later. Some of the children who were more reserved indoors worked together outside and took on leadership roles.
'The children are more confident now. They are not afraid of having a go at something. They are developing the beginnings of scientific minds. Without being asked, for example, they will talk about which objects will roll down a slope better.'
Dora Plant, head teacher of Ashbrow, says, 'Our children and families love the outdoor environment. They appear to find it less stressful. The children thoroughly enjoy every opportunity to work outside and respond to the open-ended challenges which they can continue to build on when working indoors.
'Careful observation of how children explore and interact with the outdoor opportunities allows practitioners to consider ways in which they can help children express their ideas and assess progress.
'The forest garden provides such a fascinating environment. It is regularly "rearranged" by the weather, and children behave like scientists, making their own observations as they try to understand how things happen and why.
'Children across both key stages in school have opportunities to bring outside learning in, and vice versa. Real problems are so much more enticing than "fakes". Our approach will continue to develop, as children always need access to stimulating continuous provision that will excite them as learners and promote all aspects of development.'
AUDITORY AND VISUAL LEARNERS
Being outside not only appeals to the children who are physical learners; it stimulates the auditory and visual learners too. Mrs Liversidge thinks it encourages them to question, reflect and solve problems, to face challenges, take risks, express their own views and ideas, and to work co-operatively, negotiating, planning, making and constructing.
'Forest School is much more about the children's ideas and following their initiative,' she says. 'Our project started as a way of reviewing the learning that had taken place in the Forest School sessions What became apparent was, the more I stepped back, the more they got out of it. But I wanted to see what it was they were learning. I knew they were making progress towards learning outcomes, but I did not have the evidence I really needed. Consequently, I started taking cameras and digital cameras and videos out.
'I then questioned my reasons for taking so many photographs. Was what I saw as important actually the aspect that they felt they were learning? The evidence really needed to include what the children believed to be important. They might have learned something quite different from what I had intended. So the children began using the digital cameras and the Easi-speaks.
'Indoors, we reviewed what the children had done. We talked about they had discovered and the learning that had come from the experiences.
'The outdoors and all its natural resources can be used to provide concrete and tangible evidence to support abstract ideas. For example, when learning about "heavy" and "light", the children were able to see and feel that they were unable to move logs because they were too heavy, and collaborate. How can we move this log? What could we try?
'For long and short, we dug up some worms to see which was the longest. Indoors, the children had access to plastic worms. They could compare and find the longest. We then introduced 'rulers' and the concept of units of measurement. One sensitive child who was not used to being outside initially didn't wish to touch the real worms but has done so since.
'Through this process of collaboration and negotiation, the children are able to develop their reasoning skills while also developing their language in terms of that used for communication and that used for thinking.
'Personal and social skills can also be gained and developed through this approach, sharing resources, taking it in turns, caring for themselves and their environment, along with gaining a better understanding about personal care and hygiene - for example, kitting up to go outside and washing their hands when they come in.
'The outdoors is a fabulous stimulus for guided reading. For example, we might make colour spells by finding five brown leaves and two grey stones.
'Hands-on learning experience is crucial. It helps to make learning fun. The children have looked at finding sticks as long as their hands, arms or whatever. The more traditional way would be to teach about the concepts of short and long indoors and then follow it up outdoors. We are doing it the other way round.
'Images and recordings can be used to raise confidence and self-esteem. Some children may not feel comfortable talking in front of others or in large groups but may have the confidence to talk into a microphone, when outside with a partner. These recordings can be listened to in class and the children acknowledged and praised accordingly - for example, "I loved it when I heard you and Peter taking it in turns with the microphone", or "I liked the way I heard you asking for help, Jade".
'Also, images can be shown to the class that demonstrate partner work, helping each other, working collaboratively, problem solving, negotiating and acts of kindness. This helps to foster good relationships within the class and develop some of the tools and techniques they need as they grow up.
'For other children it is enough of a reward just to have themselves up on a whiteboard screen for all their friends to see. Their smiles of approval are a real joy to see.'