Cath Prisk – There's So Much More to Learn Outdoors

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Mar 12, 2018
by Carly Sikina
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Cath Prisk – There's So Much More to Learn Outdoors

Global partnerships director for Project Dirt and head of international campaign Outdoor Classroom Day, emphasizes the importance of play and creating family-friendly city plans and policies Prisk attended Salzburg Global session Nature and Childhood: From Research and Activism to Policies for Global Change (Photo by Sandra Birklbauer/Salzburg Global Seminar)

As a lover of nature and an advocate for children’s fundamental right to play, Cath Prisk understands the importance of re-evaluating the existing legislation affecting this field. Not only is Prisk global partnerships director for Project Dirt, but she has also undertaken many different initiatives to get children learning and exploring the outdoors through play.

An instrumental figure in the movement, Prisk works in partnership with Dirt is Good to head the global campaign Outdoor Classroom Day – originally known as Empty Classroom Day – which was formed by environmental educator Anna Portch. In addition to this endeavor, Prisk is the founder and director of Outdoor People, a Hackney-based shop, consultancy, research organization and NGO that strives to get children, families, and communities outdoors.

Prisk attended the Salzburg Global Seminar session Nature and Childhood: From Research and Activism to Policies for Global Change, part of the Parks for the Planet Forum, which took place at Schloss Leopoldskron. Prisk shared her insights during a panel discussion on “Smart Action for Nature-Based Solutions” where she emphasized the importance of play and outdoor learning.

Throughout the panel, she stressed the urgent need for policy change, indicating 56% of children around the world are only getting one hour or less of outdoor play per day. “Teachers must realize that literacy can be taught outdoors” she explains, “You take schools outdoors and they are still schools. Children are still children whether they are indoors or outdoors and outdoors, there’s so much more to learn”.

Prisk believes children learn huge amounts through playing. “They are learning positional language, they are learning forces, they might be learning a bit of science, certainly awe and wonder - the base foundation of all religious teaching - they are learning all sorts of practical things like that.” Furthermore, she believes that when outdoors, children can learn “21st-century skills” such as teamwork, leadership, resilience, and stoicism.

She recognizes there is an urgent need to address this issue. “We’ve got to a point now where our children recognize dialect more than they recognize blackbirds.” She continues, “What children learn when they are learning outdoors, they learn more immediately and they learn more holistically.”

Although many school agendas do not prioritize outdoor play, Prisk believes this can be altered by initiatives like Outdoor Classroom Day and policy change. “How do we make play, how do we make it happen?” she asks, “We have to get the most important thinkers in the planet to be saying ‘This is the way it is.’”

“What if every head teacher [who cut play and outdoor time] expected to have emails from all the parents in the school complaining about this in the same way if [children] went to school and [were told] ‘We are stopping lunch’?”

In Prisk’s view, the best way for children to move is not simply providing them a sports class to take part in: they have to play as well. She says, “The head teachers think that it’s their responsibility to send children home unharmed and clean instead of excited, filthy, dirty, creative and screaming about all of the things that they’ve learned that day.”

When reflecting on potential policy changes surrounding children and nature in urban contexts, Prisk highlights the core planning policy implemented by the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. “Rotterdam has a foundational policy that says that every child at the age of seven should be able to walk to school, to the park and to the shop by themselves, and that shapes the planning decisions… Having that as a foundational policy, that they hold everything up against, just changes the way people think about planning.”

Drawing on the city of Rotterdam’s child-friendly approach to city planning, Prisk put forward three key policy recommendations. Her suggestions include:

  • Every school is required to have a policy for their outdoor spaces that incorporates children’s right to play as well as a responsibility to make those spaces great places to learn.
  • Every community plan has to listen to the needs and voices of young people and families.
  • At the city-wide level, policymakers should be thinking about children as citizens. 

Reflecting on her time in Salzburg and new insights she may have learned, Prisk said the experience had reaffirmed her belief that further cross-sectoral work was required. She also highlighted the need to take action at a city-level. She said, "National policy can frame support for city level action, but actual change happens in real communities... There's a power of a campaign to provide a tipping point, but actual change happens in people's hearts and minds on the ground, and it's a holistic change”.

"Conservation organizations have a big role to play, but part of that role is changing themselves - you know, letting kids pick flowers and jump all over the bushes because if they can only look at the flowers, or look at the bushes, they are never going to want to conserve them."

Download Issue 3 of Nature and Childhood: From Research and Activism to Policies for Global Change


Cath Prisk took part in the Salzburg Global session Nature and Childhood: From Research and Activism to Policies for Global Change, the fourth seminar of the multi-year Parks for the Planet Forum. The Forum is hosted with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in partnership with the Children and Nature Network, the National League of Cities (NLC) and Outdoor Classroom Day. More information on the session can be found here. You can follow all of the discussions on Twitter using #SGSparks.