Wellbeing and Involvement Outdoors A scheme to improve outdoor learning and professional practice through practitioner inquiry

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • Early Years
  • General resources

Basic details

Organisation submitting example

Learning through Landscapes

Local authority/local area:

Learning through Landscapes (LTL) piloted this project in partnership with Oxfordshire and Surrey County Councils. LTL works internationally with particular focus in England, Scotland and Wales.

The context and rationale

Learning through Landscapes (LTL) was commissioned by Surrey and Oxfordshire County Councils, through their advisory teams, to support practitioners in improving the quality of teaching and learning in outdoor early year’s settings. The programme was developed as a practitioner inquiry project, using the LTL Early Years PlayOut Toolkit and the University of Leuven Scales of Wellbeing and Involvement. 35 schools and settings were involved in the pilot project and the programme ran over one academic year.

Learning through Landscapes (LTL) and its Surrey and Oxfordshire partners wanted to go beyond what is usually possible within short-term practitioner training. Evidence showed that practitioner led action research is an effective form of professional development (e.g. Mills 2007). 
The aim for this intervention was to develop a new model of professional support for practitioners in early years settings which would:
• build on the Learning through Landscapes tried and tested cyclical model of change,
• use the Laevers observation and assessment tools as a child-centred measure of the quality of the outdoor provision and practice, 
• engage practitioners in effective inquiry and action learning which would have a direct impact on the quality of their setting and on children’s wellbeing and learning.

Learning through Landscapes (LTL) is the UK’s national school grounds charity, working with
schools and early years settings, helping them to maximise the potential of their outdoor spaces for learning, play and well-being. LTLs vision is ‘for all children and young people to enjoy their entitlement to the unique opportunities and experiences which well designed, well managed and well used school and nursery grounds can provide.’

LTL developed the model with 35 groups of schools and settings in two local authority areas – Surrey and Oxfordshire. In order to ensure rigour in developing the model, and in order to build capacity, knowledge and skills, LTL worked in partnership with the University of Leuven and with both local authority advisory teams to develop and implement the programme. 

International research evidence (Lester and Maudsley 2006; Louv 2011; Gill 2011) shows how access to outdoors, and natural environments in particular, can improve mental health, well-being and children’s learning. Although curricular guidance, such as the Early Years Foundation Stage in England (DCSF 2007), emphasizes the physical benefits of being outdoors and emphasizes children’s entitlement to outdoor provision, there is little research and guidance that explicitly demonstrates how the quality of the provision outdoors affects outcomes for children’s learning.

The Leuven team advised that the use of the Process-oriented Self-evaluation Instrument for Care Settings (SICS) tools would be most appropriate for this project.

The practice

This programme supported early years practitioners to meet increasing pressure to demonstrate the impact of the work they do on outcomes for children. By tracking children over the course of a year, and making changes to improve the quality of the outdoor provision, practitioners were able to observe and assess the effect improvements had on children’s learning and development as well as on the quality of outdoor learning provision on offer. 

The structural model was a practitioner-led inquiry (or action research) project, with groups of early years educators from schools and pre-schools in two local authority areas in England meeting on a regular basis over the course of a year. Settings were invited to participate by the local authority advisory teams, who targeted invitations at schools and settings where there were some concerns over quality within a particular cluster group, and a perceived need to improve outcomes as measured by the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile. However there were also some good and outstanding settings included in the project. 

Using Learning through Landscapes’ cycle of change and materials from the PlayOut Toolkit (Learning through Landscapes 2009), the key principles of looking at use, design and management of the outdoor areas remained central. Use of the Leuven instruments and assessment tools ensured that the starting point in each of these areas for intervention was the direct experience of the children in the setting, and the focus for improvement was to support their learning journeys outdoors. 

New ways of measuring the impact of changes on children’s learning were also wanted. Practitioners in schools in England were busy grappling with the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, starting to use standardised measures to assess summative learning at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage. Whilst this provided useful benchmarking in the summer in which children officially ended their entitlement to ‘early years’ education, practitioners were looking for ways to make evidence based judgments about the learning journeys of individual children from the time they arrive in their pre-school settings. Practitioners wanted such assessments to feed directly into their planning for each cohort of children and individual children’s profiles in terms of the learning environment outdoors.

With support from the Leuven team, an observational assessment of children was used, using the scales of Wellbeing and Involvement as the measure of the quality of the outdoor learning experience and its success in supporting deep level learning. The key tool was the guidance manual known in the UK as SICS: A Processes Oriented Self-evaluation Instrument (Laevers, ed. 2005).

This process contains three simple steps 

• STEP 1: assessment of the actual levels of well-being and involvement (scanning of the groups); 
• STEP 2: analysis of the observations (explanation of the levels observed);
• STEP 3: selection and implementation of actions to improve quality of outdoor provision.

The twelve month long programme included five taught sessions (two full-days and three half-days) alongside support from the local authority advisory teams who made at least one visit to each setting during that time. 

Participants used the LTL PlayOut toolkit to audit their settings or schools, and participated in training sessions concentrating on observation and assessment using the Leuven scales and the SICS instrument as well as some principles around action research.

Participants chose their own focus for intervention and improvement, based on their settings’ priorities and what their analysis of their observations told them. They undertook periodic before and after observations and assessments of groups of children, and in some cases also targeted individual children. All practitioners kept continuous photographic records and a journal of the changes they made and the improvements observed were later written into an LTL case study template to provide qualitative evidence of change.

After the project, advisory staff from the participating local authorities analysed FSP (Foundation Stage Profiles) results at the programme schools and were able to report correlating positive results.

Evidence and evaluation - making a difference to children, young people and families

A range of measures was used to demonstrate impact. The taught sessions enabled practitioners to feel empowered in making assessments using the newly introduced measures (PlayOut toolkit; Scales of Wellbeing and Involvement); they knew these techniques had been rigorously applied in previous research and they were encouraged to take an action learning approach to this programme.

Within the schools and settings with reception-aged children, the EYFS scores for children at the end of the project were looked at and compared to those collected in the previous year. FSP scores improved in all participating settings - in some cases dramatically so. In some settings, there were several interventions taking place in tandem with the Wellbeing and Involvement Outdoors project, so these dramatic improvements to children’s FSP scores cannot be attributed to the Wellbeing and Involvement Outdoors project alone. 

However, these figures, when considered along with the practitioners’ own reflections, accounts and observations of children’s learning, the changes they made outdoors and the impact on outcomes for children, do make a very strong case in favour of the Wellbeing and Involvement Outdoors approach as evidenced based practice. 

Each participating setting completed a personalised evaluation of the project using a PowerPoint template designed by LTL, the format of which included a common introduction and ‘chapter’ headings. The presentations of evidence from settings demonstrate the variety of emphases for improvement across the cohort, but in summary these evaluations provide:
• useful case studies on the level of reflection and perception of improvements in participating settings
• photographic records of the physical changes made and activities children undertook
• practitioners’ summaries of their on-going observations of children which indicate that children’s levels of wellbeing and involvement increased over the lifetime of the project.

Seeking regular and meaningful feedback from children was an underpinning principle of the whole project. Practitioners’ actions were guided by children’s voices and their expressed needs, as seen through observations of what they do when immersed in their play outdoors. This technique was combined with LTL’s participatory approaches to engaging children in planning and implementing change, contained in the PlayOut Toolkit as well as in Creating a Space to Grow (David Fulton pub, 2006). 

In March 2011 (eight months after the pilot programme completion) all participants were sent a follow up questionnaire. 84% of settings said they were still using the observation and assessment tools and making on-going improvements to outdoor learning.

A report reviewing the project found the following results:

How the participants practice changed (summary from case studies)
The following points have been taken from the case study booklets completed at the end of the
• The staff are engaging more within the children’s play.
• The staff are enjoying the outdoor environment.
• The outdoor environment is now used to help with the children’s development within all six areas of learning not just their physical development.
• The staff are working together effectively as a team to provide a stimulating learning environment for all the children within the setting.
• After using the scales and watching how much the children are problem solving, communicating and much more without needing our support it has given the staff a better understanding of how important learning through play is.
• Staff are more confident and realise the important of extending play –when needed. We now embrace our outside classroom rather than thinking it is just outside play time.

What difference it made to the children
• Higher levels of well-being and involvement amongst those children identified early in the project as having slightly lower levels of involvement than their peers.
• Children working more harmoniously together on a shared goal.
• Most target children were now playing with others rather than alone.
• The children demonstrated higher levels of creativity and they were now using resources in different ways to support their play.
• The children are more involved, more confident and definitely more vocal!
• The children are much more confident and vocal!
• Both well being and involvement scores have risen in all focus children as the project has progressed. The children are much more involved in their activities and in directing their own learning. They love being outdoors and enjoy the freedom and social interaction as well as the range of activities: they are able to access all six areas of learning in the outdoors and their self esteem and confidence is high.

How participants know it has made a difference
• The children are now more involved within activities, this has made it easier for the staff within the setting to observe and assess the children’s learning and development.
• More sustained shared thinking has taken place allowing the staff opportunities to enhance the children's learning in all six areas of learning.
• The children’s well being score is higher.
• Parents/Carers have made more comments to members of staff about activities that their children have told them about.
• By the end of the academic year the focus group children were scoring more highly in both well-being and involvement. 
• One of the focus group children’s parents noticed that she communicated a lot more about the activities in the outdoor area and about whom she had played with; she also started asking for children to come home and play.
• So much more communication and problem solving is taking place. Children now work together more, team building, sharing etc.

Helping others to replicate your practice

The cost of the original pilot programme was relatively high due to the need to ensure a high level of rigour in developing the model; the budget therefore included funding three visits from the Leuven team, plus ongoing advice and support from the University as well as intensive support for settings from the LTL Advisory team.

The two core instruments used – LTL PlayOut Toolkit (£60) and the SICS instrument (free for download from CEGO website) are readily available. The critical additional resource is the provision of support and guidance required by practitioners in order for them to be able to use the two instruments together and in facilitating the reflective action learning approach which acts as a catalyst for both. In other words the costs of the programme are related to the advisor/trainers role and the quality is dependent on having someone competent in the application of both sets of tools and in the facilitation of action learning or practitioner inquiry. 

Replication is both affordable and practical but relies on the support and guidance outlined above and the capacity to set up and support the programme for a group of practitioners over a period of time; evidence suggests that continuous support through an inquiry approach is more effective than ‘one off’ CPD (Continuous Professional Development) sessions.

The programme includes five LTL facilitated sessions and a support visit to each participating school or setting from their LTL Advisor. Settings must commit to participating in the programme over the course of an academic year and be able to communicate with their feeder schools, where relevant, in order to examine FSP data to evaluate their project’s success. 

LTL’s offer to clusters of schools and early years settings wanting to develop such a project is currently being assessed. Costs will depend on whether settings are already familiar with the Laevers Scales of Wellbeing and Involvement and/or the LTL’s PlayOut Toolkit, since confidence and proficiency in these approaches is vital.

It may also be possible for the support and mentoring visits to be undertaken by a Local Authority advisory teacher or an Early Years Teaching Centre which has already been through the programme, making use of a lower level of input and ‘arm’s length’ support and quality assurance from the LTL Advisors.

Golden threads
• You can do it – promoting resilience
• From good to great – leadership, vision and embedding is key

The following additional documents are available from the C4EOteam at the NFER:
• Extracts from Firm Foundations Report in Outdoor Play
• Surrey & Oxfordshire
• ACE case study
• Rose Hill case study
• References

Contact Us

t. 020 7833 6825
e. contactus@C4EO.org.uk

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