These brief case studies provide a snapshot of what can be achieved with a Wilderness Schooling intervention.
Westgate Hill Primary School
For one day a week, over a period of 6 weeks pupils from Westgate Hill Primary School took part in a range of outdoor learning activities, which focused on core curriculum subjects.
The group of 15 was created from across the year group; pupils were selected to take part in Wilderness Schooling because teachers felt that, for a variety of reasons, they were not realising their full potential at school. All of the pupils were EAL. Their ability to write, speak and understand English was mixed: from a few words and very basic understanding, to fluency. Language was, therefore, a particular focus for this group and activities were tailored to their needs.
The Wilderness Schooling course took place at Gibside, a National Trust site with extensive woodland, parkland and historical buildings. Fifteen year 5 pupils, accompanied by their class teacher would arrive by bus to begin a day of lessons in the natural environment.
Each of the 6 days focused on a core subject; two days of Maths, two days of English, two days of Science. Within this structure, the daily rhythm included morning games, team-building exercises, creative activities, story-telling around the fire and free time to play and explore outside.
An over-arching focus on language development permeated all the course activities; pupils we encouraged to comment, describe, discuss, note and question. Ambitious or confident use of language was rewarded with verbal praise.
For maths pupils went on treasure hunts, plotting co-ordinates and calculating distances; they designed raised beds for the walled gardens at Gibside, creating scale drawings and plotting out their designs on the lawn.
For English pupils wrote group poems and individual stories, which they performed around the camp fire. They gathered inspiration from the environment around them, ‘foraging’ for poetic techniques, listening to stories, and creating a vast gallery of environmental art, which they described to one another using ‘wow words’.
For Science pupils considered materials and their properties, they built birds’ nests and dens in the woodland; they drew and labelled diagrams. In groups pupils embarked on an insect safari, they recorded their findings and shared them with others. They created food webs and revised related vocabulary.
Pupils also learned about some of the history of Gibside; they learned the names of plants and animals that grow and live around them; they sang songs; they sat around campfires; they took part in team games; and they shared stories from their own lives with the group.
Impact on pupils
The impact on the pupils’ confidence and social interaction was one of the highlights… I saw quiet, timid pupils who had held back for almost a year, come forward, take lead of a group and even confidently perform a 2-minute story in front of 17 people. It also gave all pupils a chance to practise and improve their social skills.
This newfound confidence was transferred back into the classroom, with pupils answering questions more readily and volunteering for activities.
This was CPD for myself as a teacher – it gave me a number of new outdoor activities to carry out in line with the new National Curriculum that I have fed back to my planning partner and other members of staff within the school. It also gave me the confidence to take my pupils outdoors and know that they would be making accelerated progress. Taking this forward as a teacher I plan to continue to work with my planning partner to focus on embedding outdoor learning across the foundation subjects with pupils in Year 5. Gary Robson, Teacher at WestGate Hill Primary School
Right from the start, Simon was an engaging if quiet boy. He clearly had problems with his writing and other formal work, and seemed to lack confidence.
All this changed during the shelter building activity. As well as having a clear understanding of the task, his leadership and organisation skills shone and the rest of the group quickly looked to him for advice and guidance.
Simon seemed to grow in confidence and stature before of our eyes and this effect could be seen week after week in his other work – problem solving during maths activities and creating the most imaginative stories.
Highfield Middle School
Highfield Middle School sent 15 Y6 children to take part in Wilderness Schooling in 2013. The group left school after morning registration, arriving by bus at Gibside by 9.30 to be welcomed by a Wilderness Teacher and a Wilderness Facilitator.
As in all Wilderness Schooling programmes, the group was accompanied by a teacher who was integral to the delivery of the outdoor activities and follow up core curriculum learning themes back in the classroom.
The set-up at Gibside was ideal – the Old Visitor Reception building is a generous hut that was the perfect place to take shelter and to formalise the learning conducted outside.
Pupils in the group
Being a middle school, we could select children from across the year group, which we did with the opportunity to build social links and confidence in mind. So this group were children not achieving as they might do in school, children struggling with peer relationships and needing a boost to their attainment in core subjects. Not actively disengaged, these children formed a group of those who had potential that was not being explored.
The over-arching aim of the work was to provide them with a sense of group identity from which they could explore the learning environments we planned for them. So we spent some time talking each week, playing co-operative games and reflecting on life in school. This is an important part of the Wilderness Schooling experience, delivering to children that sense of themselves as a part of a purposeful enterprise, and as having unique skills that will enable the project to be a success.
Of course we did some beautiful things: The children made dens and built dams – exploring and reflecting on the properties of building materials. They stood under trees, in streams, beside waterfalls and on top of high rocks in order to create poetry that they then performed around a campfire. They pegged out compound shapes in the grass before calculating the area and perimeter of their creations and the buildings in which they were working. And they did much else besides.
There was in the beginning some reluctance to engage, but the interactive, hands-on and joined-up nature of the content won over all but a very few of the children. Gibside at that time of year is a joy to behold, and the magic of the shady woods, the autumn sunlight and the campfire exerted a pull that was difficult to resist.
I remember one afternoon, where having spent the day measuring the sides of the formal garden, the irregular shape of the chapel and calculating the circumference and the area, we sat on the paving outside the hut. We had gathered conkers in gleaming golden piles and we were involved in stringing them to hang on the sticks we were using as Wilderness staffs. It happens every once in a while in every classroom, but there descended the kind of quiet that is the sign of deep appreciation. The air hummed with the murmur of “pass the string.” or “Have you got the scissors?” The sunlight, the learning, the sense of being part of something. These are the outcomes that sit most forcefully beside the attainment scores we are so proud of.
In the year 6 group from the middle school, Kieran was out on his own in a group of one. Jenny and I were thinking that in an earlier age of hunter-gatherers, Kieran would have been the chieftain, everyone would have come to him for his energy and decisiveness.
He was physical, wary and restless, a natural forager who would emerge from the scrub at the side of the path with the most enormous sticks, the muddiest hands and knees. When instructed to find a walking staff he eagerly disappeared “Will this be OK?” he said a little later, dragging a fallen tree across the track. You had to smile, but Kieran was not the easiest boy to teach, and his attainment was low.
On the poetry day, his visceral writing caught our eye. We gave him a notebook and told him to write between visits. It came back the next week almost full. Who would have known that such power and insight was there, like a torrent, waiting to be captured and tamed onto the page? Kieran has consistently surprised his teachers ever since. “Worked some magic there…” said the deputy looking at his SATS results.