Education outside classroom expands horizons

Issue: Volume 101, Number 1

Posted: 2 February 2022
Reference #: 1HASaL

Education outside the classroom provides an opportunity to engage learners, broaden their horizons and build deeper relationships between teachers and ākonga, say two experts.

Allen Hill

Allen Hill

Dr Allen Hill and Sophie Watson are members of the research team that has been exploring the value of education outside the classroom (EOTC). 

Allen is a principal lecturer in sustainability and outdoor education at Ara Institute of Canterbury, and Sophie Watson is co-chair and PLD facilitator for Education Outdoors New Zealand (EONZ).

Research published in 2020 and funded by EONZ and the Ministry of Education, was part of a national study, Education Outside the Classroom in Aotearoa New Zealand – A Comprehensive National Study: Final Report. The survey of 523 school leaders and EOTC coordinators found that
96 percent of questionnaire respondents felt that EOTC was extremely, or very, important to their school.

Schools where EOTC flourishes have quite a few things in common: support from leadership, EOTC champions and good systems.

“Often that school culture, vision and the champions work together to create good systems, and this is where you can help with some of the time constraints. If you’ve got great systems in place … they can really help EOTC to flourish by helping to reduce the amount of time, or the perceived pressure on time,” explains Allen.

Outside four walls

Sophie Watson

Sophie Watson

EOTC is literally anything that happens outside the four walls of the classroom and focusses on the ways that teachers and students interact with the environment as a learning space. 

This includes learning on school grounds, school camps and visits, meeting with experts and ELC (enriching local curriculum, previously LEOTC) such as visiting local museums or attending a theatre or music performance, explains Sophie. 

She believes that EOTC helps young people to better see themselves in the community and in the world.

“I think EOTC supports connection and belonging because it’s often an embodied experience. The hands-on experience means students can make learning connections more easily themselves.  It also provides young people with the opportunity to expand their perceptions about what is possible for themselves and their community.” 

Allen agrees that EOTC can play a valuable role in helping to develop connectedness with communities. 

“We know that experiences in nature have significant benefits for wellbeing in general, particularly for mental health. But we also know that connectedness is really important for wellbeing and mental health – for students to have a sense of belonging to place and community is really important,” he says.

Bringing the curriculum alive

The description ‘EOTC brings the curriculum alive’ was a catch phrase used by many teachers in the research to describe how EOTC experiences enriched their students’ learning.

Allen explains: “I think it’s about taking the theoretical and abstract in terms of learning into the experiential and the applied. Where students get an opportunity to see, touch, feel and experience, there’s an embodied experience, a use of all the senses in the learning process, which in itself enriches the learning experience.

“Being there and experiencing the place and what it has to offer and what it is about in terms of the learning, also enriches the content. Those experiences can be very powerful – emotions are an important part of that learning process and that can be a really important part of bringing the curriculum alive,” he says.

Allen adds that it’s important that students are enabled in multiple ways to develop their skills, competencies and capabilities – and that the learning process is well supported.

“Like learning inside the classroom, EOTC requires teachers to be attentive to student needs, providing good progressions, good scaffolding, clear learning intentions and clear processes around those,” he says.

“Throwing students in the deep end seldom works – if students are supported through the process of new experiences, that can often be quite rewarding for them.
It comes back to the pedagogy – the quality of teaching and learning and having clear intentions about the purpose of the EOTC.

“What are the outcomes we want to happen for our students and how are we going to ensure that the sorts of places we’re going and the activities we’re doing are lined up with the outcomes and purpose of what we want to achieve?” asks Allen.

Key competencies

At Governor’s Bay School in Christchurch, Year 8 student Luke identified that a walking school bus could reduce traffic in the area.

At Governor’s Bay School in Christchurch, Year 8 student Luke identified that a walking school bus could reduce traffic in the area.

Allen says the values and key competencies in the front half of The New Zealand Curriculum are important for helping ākonga develop skills and capabilities for the future. 

“We know those interpersonal skills are critically important for 21st Century learners and EOTC provides more dynamic and real-world environments for the development of those skills, as opposed to being a little more contrived in some other situations.”

Allen explains that there are many opportunities to enrich curriculum with EOTC.

“For example, a biology trip to an alpine area where they were trying to understand different ecosystems and how they change and how altitude affects plants, flora and fauna; using skills to be able to ask inquiry questions and investigate those.

“I think there is something unique about having to apply particular inquiry and investigative skills in an applied setting outside the classroom that can add extra value to those inquiry processes. In the real world, in so many different professions and industries, decision-making, observation, inquiry types of skills are required in those applied settings,” he says.

Sophie agrees and says that there’s a danger of making the key competencies the only goal of EOTC, when in fact much richness can be gained from using these experiences to build on learning area knowledge and skill development.

“I see local curriculum as being a well-aligned and supportive mechanism for EOTC and also with the upcoming Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories curriculum, which is beautifully aligned with EOTC.”

Good relationships

Allen says good relationships are a key contributor to good educational outcomes for students. 

Educators have a responsibility to create a safe learning space, both emotionally and physically, but EOTC can also offer opportunities for different student-teacher relationship dynamics where students have greater autonomy and teachers share power and can learn from students themselves, says Sophie.

“I think it takes a bit of vulnerability by educators to share the learning space with students and admit that they don’t necessarily know everything. That’s where the magic can happen, but it’s essential that you have good relationships with your students and create a safe learning environment. It’s about ako,” she says.

PLD for kaiako

Teachers and kaiako have the skills to offer EOTC but may lack confidence, says Allen, adding that there are specific competencies around engaging students with quality learning in a dynamic environment outside the classroom, as well as health and safety considerations, and it’s important teachers are equipped with these skills.

“Interest in EOTC and the demand for support has increased a lot and I think that’s due to increasing barriers in particular areas, but increased enablers in others,” explains Sophie.

“Sometimes teachers can be overwhelmed by EOTC because it requires a different approach to student management and planning. If it’s not necessarily viewed as an addition, but as an embedded part of the learning journey at school, then I think it can help to remove some of those barriers and become a familiar part of experiences for teachers and students. 

“There’s no one right way of doing EOTC; as long as you are being responsive to your students, local places and your local curriculum, then you can’t really go wrong,” she concludes.


Tamariki at Broad Bay School learn about kaitiakitanga at a stream near the school.

Tamariki at Broad Bay School learn about kaitiakitanga at a stream near the school.

Toolkit of ideas

Sophie suggests some ideas for aligning EOTC with local curriculum

  • Always start with the ‘why’: the purpose and goals of your local curriculum and brainstorm how EOTC can support and enhance them. 
  • Inquiry-based questions align well with EOTC because of their open nature. Ask a question and see where it takes you.
  • Map your local area and think about how you might be able to use the different spaces and places for learning. Mapping is a great activity to start with, as you can get fresh ideas and identify what knowledge, stories and expertise you have in your class/syndicate/community – don’t forget students may have multi-generational knowledge.
  • Explore your local area. Be curious and ask, ‘what is literally on our doorstep that we can use and what are the different ways that we can use it?’
  • Identify staff strengths and interests. These don’t need to relate to your school curriculum; instead,
    it could be a hidden talent, connection, or knowledge of a particular place or topic. Identifying these things can help to create new connections and opportunities. 
  • EOTC should be done in consultation with mana whenua/local iwi. Be aware that these relationships can take time to develop, and it is important that you enter these conversations with an open mind and a genuine intention for mutual benefit. Also be aware that iwi are often inundated with requests, so be patient and respectful.
  • Talk to different people about what you’re interested in doing because there will be a lot of local knowledge within your community. Engaging whānau is invaluable as they may have knowledge, expertise or contacts they are happy to share. 


Oruaiti School in the Far North has a proud legacy of using the natural environment to empower ākonga.

Oruaiti School in the Far North has a proud legacy of using the natural environment to empower ākonga.

Outdoor classrooms engage and inspire ākonga

From the Far North to Rakiura Stewart Island, schools and kura are making the most of their ‘outdoor classrooms’ to bring local curriculum alive and ignite a passion in the environment. Over the past few years, Education Gazette has talked to kaiako and ākonga throughout Aotearoa about how learning outdoors helps to expand their horizons.

In the Far North, Oruaiti School(external link) has a proud legacy of using the natural environment to create an integrated curriculum dating back more than half a century when visionary principal Elwyn Richardson was at the helm from 1949-1962.

In 2021, the school won a Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Award for its learner-led inquiries which include habitat restoration in local wetlands, planting to support water quality, and a solar-powered outdoor learning space empowering ākonga to develop critical thinking.

“We’re all about outdoor, environmental, active integrated learning and it’s because the students here have that expertise already. To be able to position the students as experts to begin with, breeds success,” enviro lead teacher, Rob Arrowsmith told the Gazette.

Empowering children

In Mt Wellington, Auckland, tamariki at Lightbulb Learning(external link) made the most of the farm on their back doorstep with a weekly nature-based programme.

“We decided as part of our ‘Be school ready’ programme that we really wanted the children to develop confidence in exploring the unknown, so we established an outdoor programme for the older children and we take them up every Friday for two to three hours,” said kaiako, Hayley Cruden.

“It’s fostering their creativity and sense of appreciation for nature. They really take in the flowers, the changing scenery from winter to summer and they’ve noticed a lot of rubbish and stuff as well, so we plan to do a sustainability project to foster that in them.”

Broad Bay School’s principal, Greg Macleod is determined that tamariki develop a strong connection to the outdoor environment on their Otago Peninsula doorstep.

Broad Bay School’s principal, Greg Macleod is determined that tamariki develop a strong connection to the outdoor environment on their Otago Peninsula doorstep.

Broad Bay School’s(external link) principal, Greg Macleod is determined that tamariki at the 33-student school are encouraged to develop a sense of identity and connection to their outdoor learning environment on the Otago Peninsula.

“I think educators need to find out what they have on offer in close proximity to get kids outside of classrooms as much as possible. In this day and age there’s so much reliance on kids being indoors on devices. I see that we’ve got an obligation to teach children about getting themselves out in the environment, you’ve got to teach them how to be safe and make good judgements,” said Greg.

Bang for buck

The remote Te Māhia School(external link), situated on the Māhia Peninsula, has used the school’s unique environment and histories to make learning come alive for students. One of the school’s major learning activities is the school camp, which involves a different camp experience each year for three years.

The Māhia camp, which is close to home, sees students learn about Maungakāhia, a significant maunga, before they climb it. They also visit a local seal colony, visit a monument where 22 railway workers lost their lives in a flash flood in 1938, and are flown across the peninsula in a Cessna.

“It’s through their home, their whenua, their history, their geography, and their whakapapa that learning is made meaningful. And we all know that if you can make learning about kids, they engage fully in it, so you can get a lot of ‘bang for buck’ with local curriculum and local learning,” explained principal Aan Hoek.

Climate change resource

Education Gazette first met a group of students at South New Brighton School(external link) in late 2019 after they had piloted a curriculum resource Huringa āhuarangi: Whakareri mai kia haumaru āpōpō I Climate change: Prepare today, live well tomorrow. Ākonga had carried out a section survey of the nearby Avon-Heathcote Estuary, and were shocked to find enough rubbish to fill three 10-litre drums.

Teacher Mel Field told Education Gazette that the programme was tailored to the local community and students could see the relevance to their learning and lives as they learned about the potential impact of climate change in their area.

Two years later, Education Gazette visited another school in Ōtautahi Christchurch which had been using the climate change curriculum resource.

Tamariki at Governors Bay School Te Kura o Ōhinetahi(external link) were immersed in a range of activities to explore and mitigate climate change and sea level rise which included making a presentation to Christchurch City Council, addressing the issue of throwaway cups and food containers and organising a walking school bus.

Building self-esteem

For tamariki at the Year 1–8 Halfmoon Bay School(external link) on Rakiura Stewart Island, the outdoor environment is not only their playground, but also their classroom.

Principal Kath Johnson told the Gazette that ākonga at the school are generally involved in three to four environmental projects at a time. These include rat trapping, monitoring penguin cams for a nationwide initiative and being ambassadors and guides for visiting schools on predator-free Ulva Island.

Kath says that giving children the opportunity to thrive in their own environment and see how they can contribute to a larger project builds their self-esteem. 

Tamariki like Moby, aged 12, at Halfmoon Bay School in Rakiura Stewart Island make rat traps in one of many environmental projects the school is involved in.

Tamariki like Moby, aged 12, at Halfmoon Bay School in Rakiura Stewart Island make rat traps in one of many environmental projects the school is involved in.

For more information about EOTC:

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:30 AM, 2 February 2022

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