“Outdoor learning and Physical Education in Schools – what DERA has to say?”

The IOE Library has always collected documents published by government and other relevant bodies in the areas of education, training, children, and families. Today, the Official Publications Collection here at the Library is the largest of our special collections and is highly valued by our users.

In some ways official publications are no different to other areas of publishing and we have witnessed a rapid transition towards a “digital by default” approach. You may already have read our recent blog post about DERA – our online repository founded on the traditions of our printed Official Publications Collection, dedicated to preserving the digital output of government in relation to education – where we highlighted content on the subject of school meals. This month, we are highlighting DERA resources focused on outdoor learning and physical education.

Doing research in DERA can lead to surprising discoveries, as I recently found out for myself when I was looking for documents relating to physical education and sport in schools. For example, I found a document from the Office for National Statistics called Children’s engagement with the outdoors and sports activities, UK: 2014 to 2015 which looked perfectly suited to my research and opened the door to a wealth of resources that were new to me. These included a fascinating document published by the National Trust, an organisation which has been criticised recently for evicting forest schools from its woods.

The document in question was Natural Childhood by Stephen Moss, whose overall conclusion is that

we as a nation and especially our children are exhibiting the symptoms of a modern phenomenon known as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’.

‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ is a term also used by the author Richard Louv in his 2005 book Lost Child in the Woods to describe the human costs of alienation from nature. His ideas have influenced the research done by Stephen Moss, who hastens to add that his report acknowledges the many benefits of modern technology and is not about trying to return to some mythical golden age.

Children appear to have less freedom to play outside today for a number of reasons, which might be as simple as not living a house with a garden or having limited access to an easily accessible outdoor space such as a park, or even parents or carers perception of the ‘Outdoors’ as a dangerous place .However, another document that I found in DERA, Accident prevention amongst children and young people: a priority review (2009), provides the somewhat surprising evidence that, in fact, the home is not a particularly ‘safe’ environment. Data found on page 8 shows that there were 30,783 accidents in the home compared to 15,084 accidents caused by transport which resulted in emergency hospital admissions for 0-17 year olds in England in the 2006-2007 period.

Research by the University of Essex and the NHS has reported a decline in children’s cardiorespiratory fitness and an increase in childhood obesity, with researchers in these areas agreeing that the decline in the time children spend outdoors is a contributing factor. There has also been an increase in mental health problems as discussed by Richard Layard and Judith Dunn in their book, A good childhood: searching for values in a competitive age (2009), which reports on the findings of The Good Childhood Inquiry commissioned by the Children’s Society. The seventh annual report was published in 2018.

Physical and mental health problems are the most obvious consequences of a lack of engagement with nature and opportunities to maintain and improve physical and mental wellbeing through activity. There are more intangible problems which include declining emotional resilience and a reduction in the ability to assess risk which are vital life skills.

On a more positive note, the educational benefits of outdoor learning have been discussed in Learning outside the classroom, published by Ofsted in 2008.

The National Trust’s strategy for helping to improve children’s connection to nature includes its current campaign called 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾. The activities range from simple (catch a falling leaf or make a daisy chain) to those requiring more time and effort (bring up a butterfly or learn to ride a horse). Visiting a farm, flying a kite or checking out the crazy creatures in a rock pool are amongst the activities which can engage the interest of the whole family.

It is interesting to note that in Children’s engagement with the outdoors and sports activities, UK: 2014-2015 report mentioned earlier, ‘activities’ are defined as including walking, jogging, biking, ball games, swimming and water sports, fishing, picking berries and activities that usually take place indoors such as gymnastics and fitness.

Not all schools can provide trees to climb or ponds to explore but they can encourage children to be active from an early age through physical education and sports. Intentions may be good but schools may find it difficult to engage and retain children’s interest in physical activity. Evidence of official help is provided by a DERA document entitled What works in schools and colleges to increase physical activity?, which identifies eight promising principles for practice, which have been tested with children and young people and practitioners (p.5):

  • Develop and deliver multi-component interventions
  • Ensure skilled workforce
  • Engage student voice
  • Create active environments
  • Offer choice and variety
  • Embed in curriculum and learning
  • Promote active travel
  • Embed monitoring and evaluation

Additional information is provided by two more documents in DERA: the first one, a recent briefing paper produced by the House of Commons Library and titled Physical education and sports in schools, presents a comprehensive overview of current policies and practice in England, while the second is a currently open consultation on the Department for Education’s Review of GCSE, AS, and A level physical activity list.

In conclusion my initial research in DERA for documents about PE and Sport in schools led to the fascinating topic of ‘nature deficit disorder’ and the impact it is having on us and especially on our children. Even small changes such as The Daily Mile initiative can have a significant impact as reported by the BBC earlier this year.

This post is one in a series highlighting the variety of materials held in DERA. If you want to find out more, please visit our LibGude.

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