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A Paradox of Pedagogy

Exploring Nature Based Outdoor Learning

There are many books that provide us with ideas for outdoor learning, but what about the theories and philosophies behind the ideas.   A paradox of pedagogy exists when there is a tension between the teaching methods required to achieve curriculum targets and the free flowing pedagogies associated with encouraging children to have a greater connection with the natural world.  For some practitioners the answer lies in the realm of pedagogy that can then be applied across multiple learning spaces, both indoors and outside. Nature Pedagogy focuses on more than outdoor play; it looks at an approach to teaching and learning that is real and authentic as it embraces the natural world as its context for curiosity and investigation.

Nature pedagogy is defined as a natural way of working with children that embraces nature. It is all encompassing, from the educational environments we create, to the process of assessment and planning, through to the Learning Journeys that we encourage children and families to take throughout childhood (Warden 2012). 


Learning with Nature

I have increasingly been working to challenge the paradigm of thinking from learning about or in nature, to learning with nature.  In the process of doing this a new range of approaches or techniques have emerged. To create a new concept for education which embraces nature and supports practitioners is a large challenge that can only be driven by the profession itself. Practitioners who do engage with the outdoor spaces are not always given the acknowledgement of the complexity of their adult role as a’ nature pedagogue’. We state that we believe natural outdoor learning should be an integral part of children’s play experiences and that it must be firmly in the minds of all the people who work with children. Yet there is a paradox of pedagogy between what governments tell us and what we know to be right through our professional experience.

There is a movement, in education, to look beyond mere access to the outdoors to an examination of the quality and effectiveness of the learning experience itself. However, there is a tension between the desire for quality and the necessity for assessment. What makes one outdoor space superior to another? It cannot be the features alone that make the difference, but perhaps the superiority is more attributable to the people and place relationships within it.

In order to increase the amount of time children spend outside in nature, we need to open up our thinking and recognise the river of Nature pedagogy that runs underneath the many models of outdoor learning that we find around the world. We should focus our energies on connection and similarity, rather than concentrating on our differences. Then we can make a positive change for children and families.

My current research explores the features of nature-based outdoor play across a number of continents. Aspects such as topography, landscape design, loose natural materials and weather, interact and affect the learning and experiences of culturally diverse and place specific communities.  In spite of global differences, there is a remarkable similarity between natural spaces: the plants may look different and the temperature altered, but the way children use materials is remarkably alike. The joy in their faces when they find a bug is the same; the physicality and exuberance of running and dancing in the breeze is the same, engaging with mud, sand and water is the same. So what is different, or perhaps what is intrinsically the same for all children whatever ‘their nature’ looks like?

The first similarity lies in the engagement of real objects in the learning process. The level of emotional wellbeing and involvement increases when there is physical experience that helps the brain explore and retain information. Many practitioners ‘feel’ a difference in the way they engage outside as educators and see a difference for the child in terms of their focus and attention span as they move into a nature based space. The paradox appears when adults need to justify this time against the perception that ‘real’ learning takes place inside four walls.

The second similarity is the reduction of stress induced by under stimulation within the setting. All natural spaces are full of physical stimuli that connect to us as living beings. When this stimulus is artificially constructed by adults they can miss the mark, and can present spaces for learning that are not based on children’s needs but on the pressure to demonstrate objectified learning.

The third similarity is the physiological need for physicality in childhood.  Our human bodies respond to movement using it as a stimulus for both physical and intellectual growth.  Richard Louv suggests that ‘sitting is the next smoking’ in terms of the impact on global health. When children sit still, often engaged in screen time, their bodies are not moving and therefore lack the stimulus for the body to grow.  Adults know deep down that a finger movement does not increase cardio vascular muscles and yet in the paradox we are being asked to embrace the digital world at the expense of nature based learning. In settings where digital technology is being used as a supporting tool at the appropriate age, the degree of awe and wonder can increase. Embracing a movement based pedagogy with a digital device outside can work to extend learning.

Our children have a diverse range of experiences in their educational settings. In “Learning with Nature - embedding outdoor practice” (Warden, Sage 2015) I suggest that the reason for this diversity is the adults’ perception of the challenges they face in their settings. A common challenge is how we integrate, and therefore value, the experiences that occur outside. Until now, many books have provided ideas of what to do outside, and yet they present an array of issues to consider, which can be perceived as difficulties by adults. The adult role is fundamental. How adults view the use of outdoor learning varies across continents and even within the same building. There are times when we focus on the detail rather than exploring the bigger picture, thinking about what we are trying to achieve. Activities and ideas on their own are short-term fixes. For a setting to create an effective, long term approach to nature-based outdoor play, the adults must think about their own values and pedagogical framing. They can then consider which learning dispositions or behaviours they want to encourage in the children they are working with.


Intentional and integrated learning

When we look at embedding learning in a range of spaces we need to be aware of how the learning is presented. Asking the question of how we use space, time, resources and the adult role gives us the opportunity to acknowledge that learning should look different in the natural world. Nature pedagogy uses three intentional spaces, indoor buildings, outside in nature based play spaces and then beyond the fence to spaces of wilder nature (Warden 2015).

When we set up the charity Living Classrooms and Auchlone Nature Kindergarten, we started with the underlying values that would guide our work. These generated large philosophical questions such as; - What is ‘nature’? Why does it matter to the whole child? What is my place in nature? We then took those values and threaded them into our philosophy and practice to offer play and learning experiences to children.


The space- time continuum

Achieving quality is a journey in itself.  The end of the journey is always shifting and so we are a continual process of change. The reality is that we can be reflective, and effective in what we do. All of the outdoor provision I have seen and experienced has been on a continuum, a journey created by the relationships between four features as noted previously.  At one end of the continuum there are some settings where time outdoors is limited to 20 minutes, resources are over designed, outdoor spaces are small and over manufactured.  At the other end, children spend 90% of their time outdoors, all year round, resources are open ended, space is unlimited and the adult is a partner in the learning process. All theories of education can be analysed around these aspects and sit on the continuum; the nuance and individuality of the settings’ approach is achieved through exploring these features and pedagogical questions to see if they align with the values of the setting.


Consider these operational questions for your setting;

What are the children trying to tell you?

How much time will be spent outside?

What resources will you provide and how will they be presented to children?

Where will the experience take place?

How will the adults shape and support the children’s play?

How will the learning experiences ‘move’ across the physical boundaries of inside, outside and the spaces beyond the fence of our schools? 

Consider for example the following;

1.      Time:

·         How often does your team go outside for more than an hour?  Will there be the same amount of time outside as they get older?

·         To what extent do you see outdoor play as an ‘extra’ to fit into the day?

2.      Resources

·         How would you feel if children played in a puddle all day? What would ‘others’ say?

·         What if you were to look at all the outside resources available -   are they used to best effect?

3.      Space

·         How important is it for children to play and learn outside in nature or is it just important for them to be outside?

·         Is it appropriate to replicate resources and the use of space inside and outside or should they be different?

4.      Adult role

·         To what extent do staff see the links in learning from inside to outside (and perhaps beyond to a wilder space)?

·         How do you train staff to work outside?


The simple structure of these four aspects creates a framework for considering which model of outdoor play you are aspiring to create in your setting. It also allows greater accessibility and pedagogical involvement for the staff team because they understand the shared aims of the setting. When the values are clarified the knowledge, skills and attitudinal shift to learn with nature can be a challenge for adults. As a society we have lost some of our traditional, embedded knowledge about the natural world as we adapt to indoor living.

We then need to consider the child’s progression in learning in relation to outdoor play. In order to achieve this, we need to move away from purely activity driven experiences, to learning dispositions developed through inter-curricular experiences from birth to 11 years old and thus create an ethos of collaboration and respect for decision making processes. The characteristics of effective learning are developed through the way that we view the child and how we consistently frame our expectations.


Autonomy and ownership for the child

Children demonstrate autonomy, ownership, and a sense of empowerment along learning pathways using tools such as Floorbooks® and Talking Tubs™ (Warden 1996). A Floorbook is a journey of learning that focuses on the process of learning and the development of the characteristics of effective learners.  The Floorbooks are working documents and as such have a high degree of child ownership, this in turn makes them an effective tool for engaging more reluctant learners. To support the thinking process and to ease children and adults into a dialogue for learning a collection of 2d and 3d objects are put together in a Talking Tub collated with clear lines of enquiry that meet both the child, adult and curriculum focus. The starting points for the contexts are usually linked to the environment and can be child or adult initiated. Through the use of the talking tub, the adult provokes conversations, challenges concepts and celebrates the ups and down of real world learning. These authentic experiences and observation strategies are an integral part of ensuring that the voice of the child and the natural world are valued and respected as effective teaching and learning aspects. When the fascinations for the natural environment is combined with child empowerment in learning there is a higher order thinking process than can be documented that moves across spatial boundaries from inside to outside.



In recent years, further to the above thinking I have tried to pursue the case for outdoor based education by two further developments. In my international work I have created a platform for delivering effective change. The partnership foundation “The International Association of Nature Pedagogy” was successfully launched this year. (www.naturepedagogy.com or info@naturepedagogy.com)  This ‘not for profit’ organisation links educators around the world who are interested in the methods of teaching with nature through all facets of their work inside buildings, in outdoor areas, but also beyond into the wild spaces. The web site was also launched at Easter this year, together with our first International Association of Nature Pedagogy Conference which place in Dunblane on 25th August 2016 with a motivational keynote from fellow global champions David Sobel and Jen Crammer (USA).

In addition to this, the design and delivery of a new international course in Nature Pedagogy; “Journeys into Nature” explores how we can learn from the elements of the earth itself (Fire, Earth, Water and Air) to support children to be strong, sensitive adults who are aware of their relationship with the planet. Training adults takes a long time and each session delves into the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics that are present in the natural world. Understanding the mathematics of why bananas are curved or how bees are engineers lies at the root of pedagogical thinking as the questions are unpicked and explored to foster curiosity and problem solving.

This new Nature Pedagogy course (www.claire-warden.com) and the Association begin an exciting new chapter for natural outdoor learning. Together they explore a value based approach to ‘being’ with the natural world. It is about being flexible, empowering and engaging to work with those adults who want to deepen their professional understanding of ‘how’ we can engage with nature more fully.

The course in question was first piloted successfully in the north east of England and is being rolled out in full throughout the UK, Australia and parts of the US and so far has attracted significant interest. Similarly the Association aims to place nature at the root of science and of STEAM thinking generally (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths).



In response to the title of this article, I would suggest that there have always been debates around the methods we use in education. It is a healthy debate if it requires people to think and reflect on their actions, there are some tensions that appear too large to challenge. I have been on a journey with nature for 30 years. The aim has always been to make a difference, to try to make an impact on the lives of children and families through supporting the adults that work with them. Every step we take, will take us closer to that goal of authentic, real world learning in risk full natural environments.If it interests you please join us on in a global movement to maintain  our connection with nature.


Claire Warden
Claire Warden is an educational consultant with an international reputation for pioneering work in education and a focus on children’s connection to the natural world. For more details of her work visit www.mindstretchers.co.uk or www.Claire-warden.co.uk or contact Claire at steph@mindstretchers.co.uk

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