Learning outdoors and open-air schools

Rudd book on Enid BlytonI am writing this on a beautiful sunny day with the temperature is forecast to rise to 17 degrees. I can’t help but think there will be a lot of outdoor learning taking place in schools throughout the country.   It is therefore timely that we are celebrating ‘learning outdoors’ with a mini-exhibition on open-air schools featuring the open-air schools opened by the McMillan sisters and on Enid Blyton.  I wrote about Blyton the educationalist some time ago – you may want to read about her as a qualified teacher and member of the National Froebel Union. The materials on display in the Library are Blyton’s handbooks for teachers that emphasise the importance of learning outdoors. More information on these collections can be found here.

Blyton is also known as a writer of fiction for children.  One of the most popular of her creations for children was the Famous Five series, and the first title, Five on a Treasure Island, was published 75 years ago this year. Like other titles in the series the plot involved four children and a dog thwarting crime and solving mysteries. ‘Indoors’ was boring and restricted but ‘outdoors’ represented freedom and adventure.

Blyton has been a controversial figure, popular with children but at times disapproved of by adults or considered too politically incorrect. However the extensive re-packaging of her work for the 75th anniversary and the popularity in recent years of ‘Enid Blyton for Grown ups’, shows that her influence lives on.  The excerpt below is from an article by Tracy Hayes (1977) who described a conversation with a colleague on swapping childhood stories:

“Enid Blyton made my childhood” …. Her colleague responded with “Me too!”.  We laughed, acknowledging that it was not ‘cool’ to admit this!  For her it was the boarding school stories, midnight feast and mysteries that appealed; for me it was the magical folk, enchanged woods and faraway trees, and the overwhelming sense that life was an adventure. I spent many happy hours playing with my twin sister in our backgarden, looking for pixies, pretending to be a fairy, concocting magic potions from petals and rainwater. The world described by Blyton came alive in our garden and in our imaginations….

Displayed in the Library is a selection of books by and about Enid Blyton which our Curriculum Resources Librarian, Sally Perry, has selected.  There is also a IOE LibGuide on Outdoor Learning.

Open-air Schools

Margaret McMillanThe history of outdoor education goes back a long time but it was formalised in the early part of the 20th century in England with the opening of the first open-air school in Deptford in 1911 by the McMillan sisters, Margaret and Rachel.  Open-air schools were one way  to combat the spread of diseases, mainly influenza and tuberculosis,  though the mother’s poor health in pauper families also had a detrimental effect on  infant mortality rates. Children who survived often suffered from heart diseases, ear discharges, swollen glands, bronchial catarrh, spinal curvature, as well as nervous conditions usually from malnutrition and neglect.  According to Cruickshank , they were often “anaemic, stunted in growth, pallid and rickety. As a result, they appeared to be dull and backward” (1977, p. 63). This was further compounded by the pollution caused by industrialisation the impact of which was that “children rise in the morning stupid from the poison which they have been breathing all night and without appetite for food or inclination for the heavy morning’s work in school” (Medical Inspection of School Children in Blackburn during 1910, p. 157 quoted in Cruickshank).

The McMillan sisters recognised the importance of hygiene and nutrition as being fundamental to children’s health and well-being.  They also emphasises outdoor play which they believed facilitated the development of the child. Margaret McMillan is best known for her work in ensuring medical inspections and free meals were introduced in state-funded schools.

Do come and have a look at the display of materials from the Curriculum Resources, the Special Collections and the Archives.  There are some wonderful images of open-air schools which the Archivist, Jessica Womack, has displayed.


BBC Radio Archives.  (Various) Programmes on Enid Blyton

Bradburn, E. (1989). Margaret McMillan: portrait of a pioneer. London: Routledge.
Cruickshank, M. (1977). The open-air school movement in English education. Paedagogica Historica, 17 (1), 62–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/0030923770170105

Hayes, Tracy (2015) Developing an academic identity: what’s the time Mrs Wolf?  In: RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2015: Geographies of the  Anthropocene, 2-4 September 2015, Exeter, UK.

Margaret. McMillan. (1906). Infant mortality / by Margaret McMillan. London: Independent Labour Party.
McMillan, M. (1901). Early childhood. London: Swan Sonnenschein.
McMillan, M. (1911). The child and the state. Manchester: National Labour P.
McMillan, M. (1917). The camp school / by Margaret McMillan. London: Allen & Unwin.

Rudd, D. (2000). Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children’s Literature Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

About Nazlin Bhimani

Research Support and Special Collections Librarian, UCL Institute of Education, London
This entry was posted in Archives, Curriculum Resources, History of Education, Library and Archives, Special Collections and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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