Primary school children spend less time outdoors, University study finds

Back to news
Young children learning in woodlands. Credit Lorne Gill, NatureScot
Young child learning in woodlands.

Primary school pupils in Scotland spend less time playing and learning outdoors than they did before the Covid pandemic, according to new research by the University of Stirling.

A survey of 25 randomly sampled schools found the duration spent outdoors ‘per pupil per week’ was seven minutes in 2022, compared to 30 mins in 2014, the last time such research was carried out.

The survey excluded outdoor physical education, sports and breaktime, looking instead at curriculum-linked lessons, trips and events in primary schools. In the parallel early years survey, all time outdoors playing and learning was captured.

Outdoor learning and play are key elements of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, aiming to support the improvement of young people’s health, wellbeing, and educational outcomes, achieving Scotland’s target to become a nature positive, net zero country.

A child in a meadow of flowers

Covid restrictions only accounted for part of the decline in primary school pupils’ outdoor learning and play, according to the report.

The survey also showed that considerable numbers of practitioners across primary and early years lack confidence in providing for outdoor learning and the related cross curricular area, ‘Learning for Sustainability’.

However, early years staff reported higher confidence levels than primary teachers for outdoor learning. The provision of outdoor learning and play in early years education in Scotland has increased to 39% of the day, from 36% in the 2014 survey findings.

Call for expanded outdoor learning programme

The study led by Dr Gregory Mannion, senior lecturer in education, recommends that children in Scotland are offered an expanded programme of outdoor learning and play.

Dr Mannion, Faculty of Social Sciences, said: “We have known the benefits of taking lessons outdoors for some time, be that in school grounds, local natural places and greenspaces and on trips to more distant locations such as National Parks and residential centres.

“Covid made some of these trips impossible, but our survey shows learning in school grounds also decreased from pre-Covid levels in primary school. In early years, however, we saw a further increase in outdoor play and learning which is great news.

“It is pretty clear from our survey that one big difference between these sectors is professional learning. As you would expect, the more in-service training staff receive, the more confidence they report, and more outdoor learning will happen as a result.

“The research signposts the urgent need to invest in all of our educational professionals so they can take learning regularly into school grounds and local greenspaces. We need to do this so that learners can address all curriculum areas such as mathematics, science and literacy to support learners in making responses to topics such as sustainability, biodiversity loss and climate change.

“Doing so will help make the curriculum more place-responsive, interdisciplinary, fun, engaging, and meaningfully connected to settings beyond classrooms.”

The research was commissioned by NatureScot and co-funded by Historic Environment Scotland, Scottish Forestry, Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park Authority and Cairngorms National Park Authority.

Read the full research report here: Teaching, Learning and Play in the Outdoors: a survey of provision in 2022.