Innovative Outdoor Learning in the Den at Casterton, Sedbergh Prep School

Given the extraordinary natural environment in which Casterton, Sedbergh Prep School is situated, it is perhaps a natural progression for the school to invest in providing a new, purpose-built, outdoor learning space to further benefit from its surroundings. Construction of the Den started just before Christmas 2022 and was completed late February 2023.

The Den is a robust, multipurpose, facility featuring solid oak timbers and open sides looking onto the surrounding countryside. One side of the Den is slightly shielded by a grassy bank that has been ear-marked as seating for concerts and recitals. Depending on the day, if you listen carefully in the Den you can hear either the chickens in the next field – or music recitals across the School grounds.

Pete Burrell, Year 2 teacher and Pre-Prep Co-ordinator, has been tasked with promoting the use of the Den across all curriculum areas – an opportunity that he has relished. As a keen outdoor enthusiast, he has seen the way his own children prefer to be outside and he’s a passionate believer in learning out of the classroom.

“The Den has had a lot of use from Pre-Prep, who love it – Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 are big fans. I took the pupils to the Den recently for an outdoor learning activity focused on construction – and it was raining heavily. It was brilliant! The children at Casterton are used to being outside. They’ll go outside whatever the weather, but on this occasion everyone was able to stay undercover and enjoy the space.”

Learning, Health and Wellbeing

Building the Den at Casterton was inspired by research showing that outdoor learning activities can develop personal, social and thinking skills, communication and problem solving, and foster an awareness and deeper understanding of the natural environment in children. There is even evidence that if you simply teach an ‘indoor’ lesson outdoors, this change of environment has a positive impact on children’s learning. Children are more motivated to learn and they’re happier and more engaged when they’re outdoors.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to teach using an outdoor space; firstly you can simply take a class that you would teach indoors and take it outside. Regular teaching outdoors can have some challenges – for example, things might blow about – so, being a pragmatist, Pete has installed a big tub of rocks to weigh down paper and books.

Pete has been very excited by the lateral thinking that has been inspired in maths classes he’s taught in the Den. He finds that teaching outdoors offers unexpected and welcome opportunities for learning which can only come from removing lessons from the traditional classroom setting.

“I’ve been introducing fractions to Year 2 – a difficult concept at first for some. We’ve had several lessons now and the children are making great progress working in groups, with their regular books, and with objects in our big moveable trays. But the most incredible learning was when I gave the children a long length of thick rope in the Den and challenged them to show me where the middle was – i.e. find a half. We couldn’t have done the exercise inside a classroom, but with the freedom to move about freely and actively try a variety of approaches, the children tested their ideas until they worked it out. I was blown away by how they thought outside of the box.”

The second approach is teaching or activities which have been tailored to take place outside – using resources that you wouldn’t otherwise use inside. This approach is more challenging and it involves learning to teach differently; it is a transition.

“We have an amazing outdoor environment with endless learning opportunities, not just in the Den, but across the whole campus. You can almost think of any lesson that you wish to teach and there will be something or somewhere outside that would work.”

“We are already looking at creating a water wall, with water coming down through pipes; we’d have different things that can dam the water, stop the water flow. The water can flow into trays with sand, stones and natural materials. With something like this you can teach gravity, volume and capacity,  you can teach about erosion and you can teach about rivers. It is hands on, immediate and immersive – and above all, fun!”

Cross-curricular Learning

Pete’s ambitions for outdoor learning at Casterton, Sedbergh Prep School don’t stop with the Den.

“I’m investigating whether we can introduce cross-curricular activities like building living willow sculptures. There are also clear opportunities for design technology to be involved – for example in building the water wall – and of course, our science department is already very used to outside investigations and learning.”

The potential for extra-curricular learning activities is also endless; the School is looking at rewilding spaces and using existing planters for gardening club, investigating plants and encouraging pollinators. It is possible that an old, drained pond will also be reinvigorated to encourage mini-beasts and create a variety of habitats to be explored.

The Den will be officially opened on Friday 26th May by Will Newman, Headmaster and The Friends of Sedbergh Prep School, whose fundraising efforts have supported the development of this inspiring and ambitious new space. Parents are invited to attend the opening and can RSVP here.

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