Education Family Adventure Capital Philosophy

Adventure! on the timetable at Adventure Schools

Written by Kirstie Pelling

Adventure! on the timetable at Adventure Schools

If you live in the UK’s Capital of Adventure, why would you want to spend your school years looking out of the window onto a world-class winter wonderland? That’s the thinking of more than a dozen Cumbrian schools who have signed up to a pilot programme all about learning in the outdoors then bringing it back into the classroom. For these schools, ‘Adventure’ is embedded into the timetable as deeply as English and Maths.. 

An Adventure in Learning

“I’ve found a fossil. I’ve found one,” a child rushes up, clutching a piece of limestone. She thrusts the chunk of rock into the hands of outdoor leader Sarah Brierley who confirms the fragile looking imprint embedded on the surface has been around for a while. “Four hundred million years ago this lay down and died here,” she explains. One by one the children find tiny fossils in the piles of rocks that litter the windswept grassland of Scout Scar. And then they pelt down the hill back to the bus for lunch. Fossil hunting is hungry work.

Adventure! is on the timetable

For many children, a morning on a Lakeland fell might be a highlight of the school year, but at Windermere Preparatory School it’s routine. The minibus regularly chugs down the drive, delivering pupils into an outdoor playground that attracts more than 10 million visitors a year. Their school timetable has ‘Adventure!’ scheduled in alongside Maths and Science and Sport. But while the exclamation mark sets the subject apart from others on paper, it’s Sarah’s job as Adventure Coordinator to make sure outdoor education links into and supports the rest of the curriculum, feeding into mainstream lessons, “It’s easy to take learning out of the classroom, but harder to fit it back in, which is what we are trying to do.”

For these kids, the fell is a regular classroom

Headteacher Ben Freeman says not every child or teacher is expected to spend their life in walking boots, but he does look for experience in outdoor education in a teaching job applicant, and each child has a set of waterproofs permanently on hand, “We’re just making the best use of what’s on our doorstep. It’s important that children in the Lake District understand the Lake District.”

Adventure can change group dynamics

In truth, by Year 6 they probably understand it better than many adults. Over the last three years the school has developed a Log Book Award Scheme with bronze, silver and gold badges that the children earn as they progress up the school. In the winter months they immerse themselves in the land based activities of walking, climbing, navigation, survival, first aid and camping skills, while in the summer they work towards qualifications in the BCU Paddle Power scheme, and master the school’s fleet of laser boats whilst working through the RYA Youth Sailing Scheme. “Sailing solo is one of the greatest thrills and even the little ones can learn to do it. It’s an enormous confidence builder,” says Ben. He adds that the adventure element changes group dynamics; the child with their hand up in class all the time isn’t always the one who can scale the rocks or scramble the scree, “It’s a reversal of respect.”

Kids learn adventure skills as a core part of curriculum

Each year the children build on the knowledge of previous years; for example, to bag a bronze they learn how to use a map. To pocket a silver they must use these skills to take themselves up to over 700 ft. And to get a gold they spend a whole week camping, including a hike up Scafell Pike. Year 6 pupil Oliver Brierley is particularly looking forward to this, “Remote camping is so much better than normal camping. They’ll literally dump us at a spot in the middle of nowhere.”

No punishments here for climbing trees

While the Head of Windermere Preparatory has been the main driver of the scheme, he’s surrounded by enthusiasts, “At other schools children are punished for climbing trees. At this school children are punished if they don’t,” grins one of the teachers as he pushes off down the drive followed by ten mini cyclists. Meanwhile Sarah Brierley has filled in a fresh hazard assessment form and is re-loading the minibus for a stint at Kendal Climbing Wall. As the pupils join her, they wave to a class of infants clad in waterproofs, setting out for their Forest School site. This afternoon they are making fire without matches. With the help of a ‘fairy puff,’ a Magnesium Firestarter tool and a bucket of water in case it doesn’t go to plan, sparks are soon flying. But it’s all done in such a low key way that you can almost believe its normal for under-eights to play with fire on a Friday afternoon.

A network of Adventure Schools

Windermere Prep has just been awarded accreditation in the Adventure Learning Schools scheme, a scheme started by Educationalist Professor David Hopkins with the explicit aim of bringing the kind of learning children can do in the outdoors back into the classroom. But while it might be unusual for an independent primary to officially timetable the outdoors, Windermere isn’t the only school in Cumbria pursuing a course of Adventure Learning.

Dallam School, an International State Boarding School in Milnthorpe, was one of the first to climb on board the all-Cumbrian pilot scheme that now has 13 accredited members. Head Steve Holdup intends life at his school to be a learning expedition, “It’s not about just sitting down and receiving knowledge; it’s about going out and getting it for yourself, and developing the skills you would use in a challenging situation.”

A selection of Dallam’s teaching aids

An enquiry based approach to learning

Through partnership with the Adventure Learning movement, this state secondary school has developed an enquiry based approach to studying, “Instead of saying this is what the answer is, we start out with a question,” explains the Head. Like Windermere, the school makes the most of what it has on the doorstep and a favourite outdoor experience is camping in the surrounding grounds. “Our philosophy is everyone should be able to take part and it should be affordable for all parents.” Students go on residential courses to places like Ennerdale and Borrowdale, use the water based equipment from Dallam Outdoors (the Adventure Centre that the school owns) and explore the area on a fleet of 50 mountain bikes. “The staff have also taken to this in an extraordinary way,” confirms Steve.

How’s this for a classroom? Looking over to Ennerdale Water

Adventure is a lesson for school and for life

Both Head Teachers cite teamwork, resourcefulness, resilience, leadership and the ability to judge and take risks skills as benefits of Adventure Learning. In their first week at Dallam, pupils are sent down a pothole, which sets the tone for the rest of their expedition in learning, “We made a video of it, and one student who was interviewed said “If I can go down that pothole, I can do anything,” says Steve Holdup.

We’re interrupted by the bell that signals home time. It’s the end of the week and the children are free to spend the weekend putting into practice the skills they have learnt at school. Because for hundreds of children in Cumbria, Adventure! isn’t a lesson; it’s a lifestyle.


What do you think of the idea of Adventure Schools? Do you think more schools should have adventure at the heart of their curriculum and approach to learning?

This post is part of our Family Adventure Capital Season.

We’re exploring different ways families can adventure together in and around Cumbria, sharing ideas and inspiration to encourage families to get out, get active and adventure together.

Got some ideas for things we should try? Let us know.

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About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • I think this concept is a fantastic idea and really needs to be put into place in the US. So many are stuck in the sit on the couch and push buttons on the laptop. Kids need to learn about their surroundings and how to problem solve. The whole idea leads to healthy kids, more engaged kids, more motivated kids who have an excitement about learning – which leads to more success overall academically!!!!!!! Congrats to these schools for going in the right direction and provide an opportunity for all – not just the wealthy. This makes me want to live in Cumbria for my kids to complete their schooling.

  • I love it! And wish we had more like this over in the states. My 5th grader went to an overnight Outdoor School where they performed science experiments and did several conceptual activities with ropes, rock wall climbing, etc. It was fantastic but it was only 2 days worth and only happened once their entire school years….

    Thanks for linking up this week!

  • It’s a wonderful idea. We live in Lancashire, where we are surrounded by stunning scenery. I have 2 very outdoorsy little boys who I’m always encouraging to climb and to go that bit further… Unfortunately the state school system emphasises a need to sit still and behave. This does not come naturally to my boys and nor should it. I’ve been tempted by home schooling but I don’t think it would suit. There aren’t any schools like this very close to us and those that are are independent and therefore prohibitive to council working parents. Ho hum guess we’ll just have to make do with adventure holidays…

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