Playful Naturaleza: Proyecto Perú and Outdoor Classroom Day

By Martin Crabbe | May 26 2020

Playful Naturaleza: Proyecto Perú and Outdoor Classroom Day

Blog Category: Campaign updateBlog Tags: Education

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    It’s hard to find a street near me without a chalk rainbow or a game of hopscotch. And I love it!

    The Head of RE tells me that humans have marked their thoughts, dreams, maps, spells, poems, prayers and works of art on the ground for thousands of years. In 16th century Italy, pavement artists known as the ‘madonnari’ drew chalk drawings of the Madonna for money. Lockdown 2020, it seems, has popularised this art-form. 

    One of my Year 10 students had a go at pavement art this week. He completed his ‘Geography Lockdown homework’ by doing outdoor Maths!! He used chalk, stones, pine cones, leaves and sticks. The subject boundaries of Maths and Geography blurred nicely. It was clear to him that there was something more than pure Maths going on here. He had made a mark on his place and he wasn’t getting told off! He used his surroundings to add value to his work. He was active. His calculations had become a work of art. And he said he had fun. It makes you wonder why don’t we do this more often.

    Well, this is exactly what the people at Outdoor Classroom Day want.  The ‘Maths-Geography’ pavement art described in the previous paragraph was inspired by the Outdoor Classroom Day resource page

    More than ever this year I have felt that Outdoor Classroom Day is about a state of mind. By simply taking your learning outside it changes everything – and usually for the better. And Outdoor Classroom Day is moving beyond just this one day, with a campaign based around outdoor play and learning in schools every day. Their new campaign is called Playful Nature.

    But this year I was also struck by the power of this one, special day. The day that still took place despite Covid. And I was so very impressed by the work of Cath Prisk and her colleagues to get it there. Outdoor Classroom Day seemed to focus our minds during Covid.  It encouraged us, more than ever, to consider what really matters to us all. It became nothing less than a determination to celebrate life, in a time of crisis. Just one quick look at its social media supports this (for example see #outdoorclassroomday). Once the stats are published I have no doubt they will be remarkable.

    My school decided to celebrate Outdoor Classroom day as we do every year. Normally we do it on a three day Year 9 camping trip to Downe Activity Centre. We usually cheer Outdoor Classroom Day as we toast marshmallows over a campfire. Covid meant cancelling this trip. We knew we would need to be more flexible than ever but anyone who works in sustainability understands the need for messy compromise (I think the great Professor Bill Scott from Bath University first said that).

    I teach geography at Glebe School, a SEN school in the London Borough of Bromley. Glebe has a strong tradition for outdoor learning.  It is heartening, but not surprising, that during this crisis many members of staff have taught outside. If nothing else, it has made social distancing a little easier.

    My own roots in Glebe school go back to 1996. For most of my time at the school I have tried to integrate outdoor learning into my geography lessons. I’m also well aware of one of the big dangers of teaching outside over a long period of time.  You become immune to the things that drew you there in the first place. You might stay strong at talking ‘the talk’, but you no longer walk ‘the walk’. 

    I have found that my antidote to this ‘natural boredom’ is simple. Add new people or projects to my repertoire. Special places, regular tasks, trusted lessons are changed by different perspectives, children or colleagues. I never fail to be surprised and re-energised by their discoveries and fresh perspectives. And this year our response to Outdoor Classroom Day was based on exactly that: a fairly new project called Proyecto Perú.

    Proyecto Perú is our school-based global learning project. It aims to develop an understanding of the ‘Hispanic world’, and correspondingly ourselves, through links with a refuge in Peru. A team of five of us have worked on this project for more than a year now and we have recently submitted our work for the foundation (first) level of the British Council International Schools Award. We currently collaborate across three subject areas: Languages, RE and Geography. We try to integrate language, culture, equality, diversity and sustainability through a place-based learning approach. Our small team has not been immune to the impact of the virus. But those stories are not for this blog. And every reader will have their own stories. I hope that they remind you, like us, of things that truly matter. Health. Happiness. Peace. Love. And so on.

    To celebrate this year’s Outdoor Classroom Day and to recognise the impact of Covid we wanted to do a specific piece of work. And we wanted this work to embody Playful Nature. We tweaked it to be called Playful Naturaleza! We plan soon to share the results from this day with our new friends in Peru and to use it as the starting point for an international collaborative outdoor learning project.

    The remainder of this narrative is inspired by, and interspersed with, chats and observations I had during the day. It is no longer just my voice.

    Playful Naturaleza: Proyecto Perú and Outdoor Classroom Day

    We went to a place in the far corner of the school grounds known as the Wild Area. We explored it, played in it and considered why it was important to the school. 

    The Wild Area is geographically important as it is located on the The Timeline (Prime Meridian). The Timeline runs through the far eastern corner of the school grounds. It is marked by a Copper Beech tree and four London Plane trees (an emblem of London Climate Action Week). These marker trees were planted before I started at Glebe.  Their importance was passed on to me by a former Deputy Headteacher of our neighbouring school, Hawes Down, who we share the grounds with. 

    I have run lessons down in the Wild Area for over 20 years now. During this time we have planted boundary hedgerows that have become well established – great for both birds and children to hide in. In 1999, to mark the Millennium, I worked with two artists (Annie and Kay) over 12 months. We built two tiled monuments to Time and Space that revered the unique location of the Wild Area. A standing stone and a cave that looks more like a satellite dish. 

    More recently we added three signposts pointing to the North and South Pole reminding local people of the geographical significance of our space. And we hung a tyre swing on one of the plane trees. 

    During Outdoor Classroom Day we used these geographical markers to help us consider where the ‘Covid clouds’ are coming from. We tried to forecast both the weather and the future. We used them to reflect on other places that we knew and how things were for people there. How were the people in Peru coping with Covid? What about in Spain? Is Covid worse if you are poor? Do they have Covid in the South Pole? Do Polar Bears get Covid?

    We discussed some of the people we love who live in those places. We discussed whether we should add Peru and Spain to the central signpost.  Did you know that if you follow the line directly south you will almost land on Señorita Vollar’s house! Is it hotter there than here? Do they have Covid in Spain? If you go North you will end up in Scotland. No you won’t. You’ll end up in the sea. But I thought Scotland was North!!  And if you keep going long enough you’ll find penguins. Nope. Polar Bears.

    But the true magic happened when the talking stopped. The students started playing amongst the trees. Hiding beneath them. Climbing them. Swinging from them. Completely absorbed in their own worlds but completely aware of the world they are in. This simple play-state that children freely slip into and adults so easily lose. To play and to be in the moment. Of course, I’ve seen this a thousand times before but maybe because of  Outdoor Classroom Day, or Covid, or both, it seemed very powerful today.

    I was reminded of a conversation I had in Greece many moons ago. We sat underneath the corrugated iron roof of Themi’s bar in Ancient Corinth. A thunderstorm straight from Zeus raged around us. We drank beer, ate souvlaki and philosophised! The barman was in the most philosophical mood of all of us and he told us that the sounds of water and laughter came from the same source. The storm was raucous laughter (or terrifying screams!). The quiet, still water in our jug was a Mona Lisa smile. But of all the sounds, Martinako, the most beautiful sound in the world is the giggle! Like that burbling, overflowing water pipe over there. It is pure joy, gently tumbling water, giggling its way into our hearts. 

    Or something like that! We broke up into stormy levels of laughter and drank more beer. But I have never forgotten the gist of it. And I could hear this sound now. Children playing, giggling, laughing, burbling through the trees. Pure, joy. Outdoor Classroom Day. Playful Naturaleza!

    Later in the day students took part in a plant hunt. They identified the plants in both English and Spanish. Who knew that fennel was ‘hinojo’ in Spanish?! And, er, what is fennel?! And oregano is oregano in both languages! Where have all the narcisos gone?

    Students collected natural treasures. Pebbles and stones. Twigs and pine cones. Leaves and feathers.  They took them back to class to create natural art. One student painted stepping stone pebbles for the grave of her pet. Another group of students created a football stadium! And they all loved doing their work so much that they swapped lessons so they could continue. Playful Naturaleza!

    During the day Spanish was used as another tool to learn about their own place. Our Head of Languages is developing a way of working with SEN students that de-mystifies, integrates and values new language and culture. Football is given new status outside of PE and break-times because of its shared passion across England, Spain and Peru. Foods are eaten that we would never have dared to touch before. And foods that we thought we knew quite well are used in much more exciting ways.  It was unanimous, for example, that the sooner Lockdown is over and we can have a proper Calçotada, the better!

    New and exciting Spanish words described new and exciting discoveries. Language itself, so often a source of negativity to SEN students was given meaning, value. Students are given pride. Language is fun. A game. Played out with pebbles and feathers and football stadiums. Confidence is visible. Playful Naturaleza! <<In truth these things happen on either side of Outdoor Classroom Day but the day allowed us to stand back, reflect and to celebrate the students properly>>

    We watched children pushing their own boundaries throughout the day.  They dared to climb a tree for the first time or to hold a newt.

    They were reminded that sometimes they have the power to change things for the better: The Quad looks really messy sir! Foxes have ripped open the bins. There’s litter everywhere! Here’s a litter picker. Wash your hands afterwards. They were just being foxes, sir, and playing. What’s a fox called in Spanish? Zorro! Zorros were playing in here just like we were playing in the wild area this morning! Laughing. Smiling.  Playful Naturaleza! 

    Dig deeply enough and you may find potatoes. Patatas. A potato for you. A potato for me. Suddenly the Quad seems full of potatotes. We notice a giant planter full of plants with the same leaves. Are those potatoes too? What are those trees? Apples! Cherries! Can we eat them now? Have a look. Do they look ready? What are these? Rosemary! My mum uses that. I wish we could light a fire. And cook the potatoes. We could eat them here. Next week we can. On the fire pit. Mona Lisa smiles.

    We learn to sit in silence so the fish come nearer to us. We give the fish names. We learn to hide in silence and then pounce on our friends (2 metres social distancing version of course!!). Storms of laughter!

    We go back to class. We gaze at the beautiful, collaborative art made by blending the natural world with our passion (football!). This naturaleza art-model of a football stadium shows a way for all of us. We don’t need to dismiss the things we love. We just need to find the things we’ve lost or have yet to learn. For example, our ability to play like children and be in the moment. The knowledge of the natural world, gained from both our own experiences and from our elders (even if they are younger than us). 

    We go back outside into the Quad. It is warm. It feels like summer is coming. We talk about how Covid started in Winter and now Spring is nearly over. We wonder how long it will last. 

    Then two dragonflies fly past, joined together.

    Sir, are they…? !!!

    Our worries are taken away by the joy of the moment. The magic of the everyday. Noticed. Some giggle. Some laugh like thunder storms!

    Thank you dragonflies!

    ¡Viva Outdoor Classroom Day! Playful Naturaleza.

    Background Information on Doorways

    The Doorways blogs are part of a reflective project run by London Sustainable Schools Forum. Please visit our website page here:

    The Doorways project aims to support schools and those that work with schools to consider how to develop a more sustainable approach.

    If you want to dig deeper we recommend that you visit Transform Our World for great resources.

    It specifically supports the following:

    Care for yourself. Care for each other. Care for the environment.

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Martin Crabbe