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GROWING THE UDESKOLE MOVEMENT: Finding Balance in School-Based Outdoor Learning

About the Author

Mads Bølling, MEd in Educational Sociology, is a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and is associated with the TEACHOUT project. Karen Barfod, MSc, is a Senior Lecturer at VIA University College, Denmark, PhD student at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, is associated with the TEACHOUT project, and is Chair of UdeskoleNet. Peter Bentsen, MSc, PhD, is Team Leader and Senior Researcher at Steno Health Promotion Research, Capital Regional, Denmark. Peter is a member of the TEACHOUT project group and Project Manager of the ‘Development of Udeskole’ project.

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Imagine a classroom where the students’ eyes are lifted from their textbooks, as teachers invite them to hands-on and experiential activities.

The students are measuring and calculating the volume of trees in mathematics, writing poems in and about nature or visiting historically significant places or buildings. Each of these activities is actively supplementing the students’ learning processes and they are taking place just outside, in the local and natural environment around schools. This is udeskole. Its literal translation: outdoor school.

Udeskole is a Scandinavian concept. In Norway it is described by Jordet. In a Swedish context by Dahlgren and Szczepanski, and in a Danish context by Mygind, Bentsen and others. Udeskole targets children aged 7-16, and is characterized by compulsory educational activities outside of school on a regular basis, e.g. one day weekly or fortnightly.

There is growing interest in udeskole as, among other things, a way of reconnecting children with nearby nature largely in the local and natural environment around schools. In Denmark, politicians support this practice and researchers are investigating its horizons. Around the world, many have asked why it has come to be this way in Denmark.

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Quite similar to the English Forest School in its philosophical approach, the Danish udeskole is more embedded within the national educational system, while Forest Schools tend to be largely an external school service. In fact, in 2014, 18.4% of all schools in Denmark relocated some of their subject-related teaching to places outside the classroom on a regular basis (Barfod, Ejbye-Ernst, Mygind, & Bentsen, 2016). While the growth and support for the practice is incredible, increased attention from the research community, institutions and politicians has driven efforts to formalize udeskole. In this blog, we argue for a balanced development of udeskole between autonomous bottom-up growth and formalized methods.

In 2012, readers of The New Nature Movement blog were introduced to the Scandinavian concept of udeskole as a promising way to include external learning environments as natural spaces within the conditions that exist in schools and institutions. Now, four years later, in this guest blog, we explore the current and future developments of udeskole in Denmark as framed by practice, policy and research. As researchers of the practice, we have identified four current factors supporting the development of udeskole in Denmark, connected through mutual cooperation and exchange of knowledge. These four factors include:

1. The udeskole grassroots movement
Through professional autonomy, teacher-driven udeskole practice has been initiated in schools around Denmark, supported by some of the Danish nature interpreters locally. Unformalized, the udeskole environment has been characterized as a bottom-up grassroots movement with a high degree of openness and will among teachers, nature interpreters and educators to share their ideas and results. Since 1999, the website skoven-i-skolen.dk (connected to the LEAF project), funded by both NGOs and public grants, has offered free “ready to use” educational materials, based on material sent in by teachers and nature interpreters, and popular articles by researchers. Practitioners’ networks such as UdeskoleNet, have provided a grassroots-based forum for this shared interest.

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2.  Formalized teacher education in udeskole
Originally, udeskole was characterized as a ‘wildflower,’ developing on its own as a bottom-up grassroots movement. However, recently, university colleges, universities, and private organizations have reinforced its formalization. Several educational programs now offer continuing education in udeskole pedagogy, supervision, and coordination. Through this, udeskole seems to be undergoing a process of becoming a “useful garden plant in a garden” – in which the garden is the school system.

3. A recent reform of the Danish Schools Act
In August 2014, new school reform was initiated in Danish schools, which among other things supports movement, physical activity and education outside the classroom, albeit not mentioning udeskole explicitly. Following this, the Danish Ministry of Education and the Danish Ministry of Environment decided to support the development of udeskole with approximately 1.6 million Euro by launching a national demonstration, development, and research project called “Development of Udeskole.” The project generates and disseminates practice-related knowledge about udeskole and thereby supports its development and provision as a teaching method.

4. A strengthened research community
At the beginning of the 21st century, Master’s students and individual researchers began paying attention to udeskole. Originally, questions concerned the characteristics of udeskole, and various psychosocial and academic outcomes in natural environments were suggested. Recently, research on udeskole has formed around a strengthened research community boosted by a widespread awareness of and interest in udeskole among students and experienced researchers. Specifically, the need for more studies exploring effects of udeskole was a product of the willingness of the established research environment and the political interest of private foundations to focus on its health and academic opportunities. Thus, in 2013, the TEACHOUT project was launched aiming to conduct a systematic and structured evaluation of udeskole (Nielsen et al., 2016).

Based on these four identified factors, we argue that there are three prominent tendencies affecting the development of udeskole in Denmark.

1. Cross-sectorial cooperation and dialogue

The research interest has been supported by the historically strong link between practitioners’ networks and researchers. Specifically, UdeskoleNet has invited researchers to meetings and driven a dialogue with practitioners, thereby easing the collection of empirical evidence. Teachers have volunteered for research, and researchers have shown great respect to the participants. Secondly, these relations have afforded a knowledge dissemination shortcut around policy and educational institutions. Finally, the space for dialogue between practitioners and researchers has supported the addressing of research questions with relevance for practitioners, as seen in the aforementioned project “Development of Udeskole.”

2. Instrumentalization of education
Like most Western countries, Denmark has not escaped the neo-liberal focus on performativity and measurable outcomes of school (Waite, Bølling & Bentsen, 2015), new public management of schools, and the tendency to teach to the test. There seem to be two coexisting, parallel strands in Danish educational discourse: a holistic bildung one, and a neoliberal educational one. Side by side, and both being part of the current debate and research, the tendencies are developing in Danish schools. Unfortunately, the testable performance skills are easily measurable, and are essential in the debate; but they must not cover every argument considering more holistic, bildung-related outcomes. The aforementioned reform of the Danish School Act essentially places great emphasis on academic skills and ‘goal-driven’ performance tests. Following this, we observe an increasing instrumentalization of udeskole, whereby it is advocated and used to strengthen academic performance.

3. Striving for standardization
A core characteristic of research is standardization and measurement. An accidental impact of the increased research interest is a strengthened discourse on udeskole as a uniform concept, e.g. one day a week outdoors regardless of the relevance of the program, or ‘closed tasks’, instructor-driven activities. Thus, practitioners must be aware of whether or not they are adopting udeskole in a way that is consistent with their own professional autonomy and the time constraints set up by the researcher.

A development between a ‘round’ and a ‘squared’ discourse

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We believe that the udeskole practice movement will continue to grow from the bottom up. However, research interest in, institutional attention to, and political awareness of udeskole have in all likelihood authenticated and formalized the concept. Thus, udeskole is currently constituted between a ‘round’ and a ‘squared’ discourse.

The recent reform of the Danish Schools Act has certainly enhanced the prospect of the involvement of more physical activity and teaching, which takes its starting point in the lived world and society outside the school context. However, anecdotal evidence has shown us that the top-down strive to implement udeskole has led to challenging conditions and reduced teachers’ desire to use it.

Is the pioneering era of udeskole gone? The grassroots movement is still going strong, but must be considered in opposition to the formalization of the approach.

Udeskole is a product of a holistic bildung approach to education, driven by a large degree of teacher autonomy, awareness of their own pupils and a ‘freedom of methods’. Thus, the ‘round’ discourse stands in opposition to the ‘squared’ discourse – the larger cross-national political pressures for educational performativity (Waite, Bølling & Bentsen, 2015), and the uniformity that is necessary when researchers try to assess udeskole outcomes.
For the near future, the ongoing formalization of udeskole will most likely continue. School management will become more aware of udeskole, and more teachers will potentially begin to relocate some of their teaching to natural places outside the classroom.

The holistic bildung approaches of udeskole, reinforced through individual teachers’ engagement, are at risk of being abandoned in favor of formalization and standardization. As a consequence, this could turn udeskole from a holistic, child-led, inquiry-based approach into a more instruction-driven teaching. We hold that the dichotomy between autonomous, bottom-up growth and formalized methods must be recognized and balanced on all levels.


Additional Reading 

UDESKOLE IN SCANDINAVIA: Teaching and Learning in Natural Places
FOREST THEATRE: A Lesson in Letting Kids Self-Direct
THE SCHOOL OF NATURE: Greening Our Schools May Be the Real Cutting Edge of Education, by Richard Louv
FOREST KINDERGARTEN IN THE CEDARSONG WAY, by Erin Kenny
Earth in Mind, by David Orr
Beyond the Rainbow Bridge, by Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley
Sharing Nature with Children, by Joseph Cornell
Problem-Solving in the Classroom: A Case Study from Georgia’s First Forest School by Jas Darland

References

Barfod, K., Ejbye-Ernst, N., Mygind, L., & Bentsen, P. (2016). Increased provision of udeskole in Danish schools: an updated national population survey. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 20, 277-281.

Nielsen, G., Mygind, E., Bølling, M., Otte, C. R., Schneller, M. B., Schipperijn, J. Ejbye-Ernst, Niels, & Bentsen, P. (2016). A quasi-experimental cross-disciplinary evaluation of the impacts of education outside the classroom on pupils’ physical activity, well-being and learning: the TEACHOUT study protocol. BMC Public Health, 16(1), 1117.

Waite, S., Bølling, M., & Bentsen, P. (2015). Comparing apples and pears?: a conceptual framework for understanding forms of outdoor learning through comparison of English Forest Schools and Danish udeskole. Environmental Education Research, 22(6), 868–892.

Photo Credits: Picture 3 and 4: Karen Barfod


Commentaries here and elsewhere on the C&NN website are offered to inform readers and to stimulate new thinking and debate. C&NN does not officially endorse every statement in every commentary.

6 Comments

  1. We interview Peter Bentsen, Eric Mygind plus the DK Ministry of Education on this subject of Udeskole in NaturePlay film. We examined the system in Denmark before the reforms took place and are sad to hear about the push for increased testing and standardization there. Our film is meant as a warning to countries not to go down the road the US has taken in Education. After 10-15 years of this hyper testing, hyper stress edu culture of “rigor” we have not raised attainment scores and have produced spirit broken children that have lost the love of learning. Do NOT follow us down this dark path. Go your own way and push back against this global infection that harms our children.

    Reply
  2. I am sure many readers are convinced of the value of programs such as the Udeskul and of the cross-curricular value it provides. In order not to be just preaching to the converted though, teachers need evidence-based methods for addressing the mainstream curriculum through programs such as uderskul. There are no free curriculum hours in a mainstream school, and even if a principal is sympathetic, they won’t (or even can’t) approve it unless there is an evidence base that shows it “ticks the boxes” for mainstream curriculum outputs.

    Mainstream teachers need a method or a process which links underskul like programs and mainstream school curriculums in an evidence-based package, otherwise, it will remain an outlier.

    Reply
  3. Dear John,
    Thank you for your interest and your highly relevant comment. I am glad that you see the value of the udeskole programme. Maybe some of your concern can be explained by a cultural difference? You ask for evidence concerning the mainstream curriculum and udeskole. Firstly, in Scandinavia, even with an increased subject-related testing in schools, ‘soft’ or non-testable values still get attention. The main aim of our school do point to holistic and developmental goals, too. Secondly, the term ‘evidence’ calls for discussion. Is evidence aligned with exam results and subject marks? Anyway, there are some research-based knowledge/evidence upon the value of udeskole and curricular outcomes, e.g. Fägerstam’s published work, and the upcoming results from Camilla R. Otte’s sub-study in the TEACHOUT project concerning childrens learning in Danish and Mathematics (to be published). Quite another discussion will be, what the school is aiming at. I believe, that a broad and comprehensive education is worth aiming for.

    Reply
  4. Dear Aimie. Thank you for your interest and comment. I fully agree with you in the problems of the existing test culture. Such culture may lead to ‘teach to the test’ and that the practice of udeskole can end up being a tool for achieving the aims being tested. Another consequence could be that the practice of udeskole will be abandoned to ensure better time to learn what is being addressed in the tests. However, I still believe there is room in the school schedule to relocate the teaching outside the walls and grounds of schools although there is an external pressure on formal skills. If the abandon of udeskole were the case, we would not see that almost 20% of Danish schools practicing udeskole regularly, as we have documented in the research paper “Increased provision of udeskole in Danish schools” from 2016 by Barfod et al.

    Reply
  5. Dear Mads and Karen,
    Thank you for all the work you and the TEACHout team do in Denmark. While I see what the other people here are commenting about, simply put I believe Udeskole utilises great pedagogy. This pedagogy can be used inside AND outside the classroom. The outdoors adds to the learning. The concern many have about testing is real, in Australia it is the same. However, you have real data that learning outside the classroom assists learning gain. This learning outside the classroom helps children gain better results in their standardised testing. I eagerly await the full TEACHout report – you are going to knock the socks off any doubters of the absolute benefit of udeskole.

    Reply
    • Mikkel Schneller

      Dear Amanda,

      Thank you very much for your comment. We appriciate it.

      Congratulations with your new title (Dr). Thanks for the interest, and thanks for visiting us two years ago.

      I am not sure if we are going to ‘knock out the socks of any doubters’; hopefully, we will contribute to the field (research, practice and policy) through our research and the TEACHOUT project.

      Recently, we had four papers published from TEACHOUT (and many more to come):

      Schneller, M.B., Bentsen, P., Nielsen, G., Brønd, J.C., Ried-Larsen, M., Mygind, E., & Schipperijn, J. (2017). Measuring Children’s Physical Activity: Compliance Using Skin-taped Accelerometers. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 49(6), 1261-1269.

      Schneller, M.B., Duncan, S., Schipperijn, J., Nielsen, G., & Mygind, E., & Bentsen, P. (2017). Are children participating in a quasi-experimental education outside the classroom intervention more physically active? BMC Public Health, 17, 523.

      Mygind, L., Kryger, T.B, Sidenius, G., Schipperijn, J., & Bentsen, P. (2017). A school excursion to a museum can promote physical activity behaviors in children by integrating movement in curricular activities. European Physical Education Review [accepted].

      Schneller, M.B., Schipperijn, J., Nielsen, G., & Bentsen, P. (2017). Children’s physical activity during a segmented school week: results from a quasi-experimental education outside the classroom intervention. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity [accepted].

      Mikkel Bo Schneller will defend his PhD thesis ‘Effects of education outside the classroom on objectively measured physical activity: results from the TEACHOUT study’ the 16th of June, 2017 at University of Southern Denmark.

      The 4th of October, 2017 there is a national conference, based on the TEACHOUT results, focusing on education outside the classroom in Denmark and learning, physical activity and social relations: http://www.via.dk/efter-og-videreuddannelse/uddannelsestilbud/konferencer/national-udeskole-konference

      Hope to meet you again in the future.

      All the best,

      Peter et al.

      Reply

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