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Cross curricular: Learning outdoors

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By Rosie WardenJunior Ed PLUS Guest Editor 2007 and Year 4 teacher

Cross curricular: Discover some dip-in activity ideas to help you make the most of nature’s teaching resources

girl blowing bubbles

Take learning outside the classroom and embrace the great outdoors

The ‘outdoor classroom’ has always been central to the Early Years philosophy, given that it provides such rich contexts for practical problem solving, negotiation and language development. Unfortunately, as children get older and the curriculum becomes more formal, that sense of playfulness and discovery is lost. Perhaps it’s time we ventured outside where there are fewer restrictions on space and on the type of teaching materials at our disposal. Moreover, in the current climate of environmental concern, outdoor learning provides a useful platform for raising awareness of the issues of sustainability, and if nothing else, your kinaesthetic learners will thank you for it!


The using and applying aspects in maths lend themselves to outside areas. As well as enabling children to explore lengths and measures around the school, they could also try practical problem solving.

1. Children could work out the area of the school car park or calculate the total length of fencing needed for a particular part of the school. (For example, will a fence feature in their ‘Junior entrepreneurs’ project on pages 16-17?)

2. Consider borrowing the water tray from Reception to explore capacity with different-sized containers – much less messy than trying to do it in the classroom!

3. Being outside is also great for getting children to grasp particular mathematical concepts by acting them out physically. For example, you could set the class out in a large semi-circle to make a human protractor, and explore different angles with chalk or skipping ropes.

4. Children could become numbers on an analogue clock face, with classmates given instructions to move clockwise or anticlockwise a certain number of minutes, before telling you the new time.

5. Symmetry and reflection can be explored by arranging a line of skipping ropes and asking pairs of children to stand in corresponding positions on either side of the line.

6. For work on coordinates, you could make a human grid with an X and Y axis, and then give directions around the grid.


1. The first stages of phonic awareness require young children to become aware of environmental sounds. Going on a ‘sound walk’ would make a great starting point for using the senses to write poetry in the primary years. You could even stop and look up at the sky and explore similes and metaphors by discussing what shapes the clouds make.

2. All children love making dens, so get them to work in groups with natural materials or specific props and then use this as the basis for discussions of story setting or the context for an adventure story.

3. As a class, you could design an obstacle course, and then write instructions for how to get across it efficiently – great for exploring powerful verbs.


Sometimes you just need some space if you want to be really creative, and the associated ‘mess’ can be much easier to clean up afterwards if you are outside the classroom.

1. To understand more about materials and structural forces, encourage children to use materials such as newspaper and sticky tape to make a bridge strong enough to hold a brick. Or, try making the biggest skyscraper possible from marshmallows and spaghetti.

2. Children could explore using clay and natural materials to create sculptures that draw out the character of the environment – explore the work of artist, Andy Goldsworthy, for inspiration. (Type his name into our search facility, ‘Find a resource’ for a biography.)

3. Observational drawings of leaves or bark rubbings could form the basis of further project work exploring texture and form. Linking art to maths, you could practise scaling up. Children come up with a simple design, and then use tracing paper to draw up a grid with coordinates. They can then use chalk on the playground, or large sheets of coloured paper to recreate the design on a bigger scale.


There are numerous opportunities for exploring science in the great outdoors. Some schools are lucky enough to have a pond or nature trail, which can enhance work on living and growing, and habitats. However, as with maths, a lot of key concepts in science can be brought to life by physically re-enacting them.

1. Create a sundial on the playground, exploring how children’s shadows fall in different positions during the day. (You could link this to exploring Machu Picchu in our creative topic – on pages 33-36 in the May 2008 issue of Junior Ed PLUS.)

2. Act out the properties of solids, liquids and gases. Start off in lines holding hands to represent the way molecules behave in a solid, and then start ‘vibrating’ the hands, some will start to break (liquid). Finally as a gas, the children can break away completely. (For more ideas on material properties, read Kitchen cupboard science – on pages 38-39 in the May 2008 issue of Junior Ed PLUS .)

3. Build a ‘human’ electric circuit. Discuss with the children how to represent the energy when a bulb lights up or a buzzer makes a noise, and what happens when the circuit is broken (when a switch is pressed). In a similar way, children could represent blood cells carrying oxygen around the body to various organs.

4. Act out the orbits of the Earth, Sun, Moon and planets in relation to each other.

5. Explore pollination by dividing children into teams. Distribute hoops around the playground to represent flowers. Each team has an ‘insect’ which takes the pollen (another child on the team) to a flower and then returns for more. If a flower has already been pollinated, the other team cannot use it. Discuss with the children what might happen if a predator eats one of the insects?

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