Welcoming back school groups

The best part about working within the Engagement Team at Northumberland National Park is welcoming school and community groups into the National Park, and teaching them all about the special qualities of Northumberland and its landscape. As the Learning Officer for the Park, I work closely with school groups and students of all ages, but during lockdown this was, of course, not possible.

Myself and the rest of the Engagement Team were really looking forward to the time when we could welcome groups back into The Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre and sites across the National Park – we had seen that people were engaging with our online content, where we highlighted the benefits of getting outside where possible and shared activity ideas for people to do at home, and we hoped everyone was as keen as we were to get back to outdoor learning.

National Park Ranger Sally Graham showing off a tray of items to a small ground of school children

Once our learning programme finally reopened in April 2020, I really wasn’t sure how many schools to expect bookings from for pupils to come to the Park and take part in our activities in person.

It turns out I didn’t need to worry, as the response we got from schools from the very beginning was fantastic. In fact, it was a challenge to keep up with the demand! Since April 2020 we have carried out over 2,500 engagements with school children in a variety of ways, including online, in school, at The Sill, and at other sites across the National Park.

A group of school children, wearing high visibility jackets visit a quarry in Northumberland National Park

The Sill, Walltown Country Park, and the surrounding Hadrian’s Wall area proved very popular for visits, but the most booked session was (and still is) our River Investigation activity, which takes place at the River Breamish in the north of the Park. We have delivered a number of curriculum led sessions, such as River Investigation, Nature Detectives and Discover Pre History, where several school groups took part together simply because they wanted to bring their students out to experience outdoor learning activities. It was fantastic to receive feedback from teachers saying it was great to see the children being totally immersed in the environment, and that the safe settings gave the children the confidence to explore a rural landscape, which was a first for some.

We did face some challenges along the way. Getting to grips with government guidelines, and putting in new policies and procedures to keep everyone safe, was quite a challenge at first; it was a new way of working for us. There were also a few times where we had to try and rearrange activities when school groups had to cancel, or when we found ourselves needing to isolate due to being ‘pinged.’ But luckily, we were prepared for this, and we adapted some of our sessions to be able to deliver them online, and we made sure we were flexible with the booking process to try our best to rearrange sessions when necessary.

A young boy pulls a net out of a lake in Northumberland National Park

These new ways of working, coupled with the great response to our programme from schools, has led to some new developments to get even more people engaged with outdoor learning and its benefits. We have developed some brand-new digital resources on various topics that teachers can print out and use in the classroom, if they are unable to visit the National Park at the moment. We have also launched our dedicated Recovery Curriculum this term, with specialist activities designed to help school communities come together and reinstate a love of learning amongst their pupils. This programme focuses on health and wellbeing, as we know that a connection with nature and experiencing the outdoors is so important to our physical and mental wellbeing.

I’d like to say a big thank you to all of the schools that have engaged with us since April. We hope to see you all again soon, and look forward to welcoming even more groups to engage with our exciting outdoor learning experiences.

If you would like any more information about our learning programme, please contact us via learning@nnpa.org.uk. You can also check out our learning resources here.