7th April 2020

Featured / Outdoors / Helene Mark

Outdoors Education: An Original Interview with Some Good Ideas

6 10 mins 4

HHelene Mark moved from Denmark to London ten years ago to join a start-up working to analyse football games using mathematical algorithms. Over the next decade as COO, Helene oversaw the company as it grew from five to two hundred employees. Tasked to find great analysts, statisticians and all-round tech experts, Helene soon came to realise that top grades did not necessarily correlate with how well someone would perform.

After nine years, she decided to leave the company. Through a combined eagerness to change the education system and create a nursery that celebrated holistic learning, nature and community, Outdoor Owls was born.

Some Good Ideas: Hi Helene, can you tell us about where the idea for Outdoor Owls came from? 

Helene Mark: The idea of Outdoor Owls coincided with me leaving my job. I was family planning and started to think, how will that combine with a new job? How am I going to get a new COO role, work eighty hours a week and have a child? There wasn’t anywhere in London where I thought I’d be happy to leave my child for the day. I didn’t want to feel guilty for leaving my child somewhere I wasn’t totally happy with. I thought this must be an issue for many people. I grew up in Denmark where the education system is so different to the U.K., I thought maybe I should just move back to Denmark, but I didn’t want to, my whole life is here, this is my home.

Some Good Ideas: What are the differences in the Danish education system?

HM: I think it’s more holistic, focusing on the whole child. Whereas in the U.K. it is more traditional and focuses more on isolated academic skills like maths and literature, it’s very much ‘schooling’. School starts here when children are barely out of their nappies.

Images by Department Two

SGI: When does education start in Denmark?

HM: Not until they are 6 and it’s a lot more ‘play’ based, focusing on broader skills. Yes, they learn literacy and maths, but later than they do here. There is a long-standing tradition in Denmark of outdoor nurseries. The Forest School movement, created in the 1940s, comes from Nordic countries. It’s a different way of seeing the development of a child. Its purpose is to build a resilient, emotionally secure, confident, curious and somewhat more creative child.

There was suddenly a big eureka moment where I thought, yes I don’t have a background in education, but I do have a background in working in management. I have -to some extent- been the person who hires “the product” of education.

I had the task to hire the best people, fresh graduates and put them into roles and tech teams. I had the budget to hire whoever I wanted, I just needed to get the best. So you think if you have to hire the best software engineer, you’d go to Cambridge and pick a person with the best grades, thinking that they will be the best. Well that is the assumption, right? But what I found over time was actually, education is a poor predictor of how people perform in the workplace. At least I found that in our company. The things that actually determine how good you are in a workplace are broader skills like, how good are you at teamwork, how creative and how inquisitive are you?

What we used to call ‘softer skills’, are now far more important in the workplace. Yes you have to be really good at computer science, but you could argue that is a skill you can learn relatively quickly if you are smart. I would interview and assess for other things. Of course we looked at education, but it just wasn’t a clear predictor of someone that would be successful.

We are putting our children through this system at such an early age, almost taking away their childhood, forcing them through a system which doesn’t give the outcome that is needed anymore.

Today’s children will enter the workplace in an even more complex situation than it is currently. Artificial Intelligence will have taken over many job tasks, so if anything these “softer skills” which we previously have looked down on will be seriously needed.

Helene Mark

It’s not that I want to totally revolutionise the education system or let the children run wild. I’m a big believer in education. I definitely think there should be an education system, but it needs to be rethought a little bit.

With Outdoor Owls we are looking at nursery age -just 2 to 5 years old- but it is a really interesting age. In the U.K. there has been an over-focus on trying to get children “school ready”. It’s not uncommon to have maths tutoring before they even get into school, to force that onto a 3-year-old is a waste of time. Of course I want children between 2 and 5 years old to learn, but it’s thinking about how they learn, not so much what they learn. It’s a really important time for a child. The brain gets wired, the pathways of how they think are developed. It’s way more important that we focus on confidence, resilience, becoming emotionally secure. Yes in my nursery we will teach them to count, but there is only a certain time of day where a child is receptive to that kind of information.

SGI: I came across an American toy designer called Cas Hollman who designs toys that emphasise creativity through unstructured play. She is an advocate for a type of curriculum for children called Anji Play, it’s about playing outdoors using materials like barrels and ladders, teaching children principles of engagement through joy and risk. She explains how risk in play creates independent, creative and self-assured citizens.

HM: Well the whole idea of ‘play’ and using play in education is a big part of the Outdoor Owls ethos. I’ve looked deeply into how a child absorbs information and play is a far more effective way.

Our teaching philosophy is child led; the educators will let the children choose what they want to do. It doesn’t mean that they won’t learn anything, it means that the educator becomes a facilitator. The teacher must see the learning opportunity in whatever the child is doing and guide in a way so the child learns from it.

Images by Department Two

SGI: That is so interesting. So it becomes just as important engaging the teacher as it does the child?

HM: You could argue that it is more difficult to be a teacher in our nursery because they have to realise -on the spot- what the learning opportunity is in the activity the child chooses. But if the child has chosen the activity, they are already motivated and engaged. They are having fun and they are doing something they like, so they will be much more receptive to learning. Between the ages of two to five, children learn in sensory and physical ways. They learn via movement and smell, so being outdoors is a great environment for that, it stimulates their senses and therefore creativity. There are so many activities for children to do outdoors compared with an indoor setting. In a closed environment, activities are far more controlled. Outdoors you can come up with anything, a stick can be used as a tool to dig, it can be a magic wand, it can be so many different things, it’s far more open ended, it stimulates a child’s curiosity and imagination.

Risk taking and resilience is something we really work with. It sounds strange but I really want our children to take risks. Parents might think, “well is my child going to be safe?”. No one wants to think that a child might get hurt. I’m talking “safe risks”. We asses every morning to remove all potential dangers. But -within a controlled environment- we want the children to take risks; to climb a tree -of course observed by a teacher- and to use a tool. We believe that if a child takes risks, it will build their confidence. It’s about making them emotionally secure and resilient, for the child to understand that they can overcome a task.

It’s no secret that mental health has become so prevalent in today’s society. Children are growing up in a far more complex world today. It is so important that they have resilience with them from an early age.

In the U.K. out of good intentions, there has been so much emphasis on health and safety. But it has gone overboard. Yes you want to keep all children safe, but the consequence of too much regulation has gone too far. Now all the nurseries are behind gates, they barely get out, if they do play it is what I call “sterilised play”. Children are kept away from the world. If they don’t see the world, sense it, feel it, smell it, then they won’t be capable in later in life.

We take children out into nature, but we also take them outside into the world. For example, we will take them on a trip to the shops, we’ll visit an elderly home, or we’ll go to a historical site. Of course we do all of our risk assessments before, we keep them safe. I think there are bigger risks in not taking them outside of the classroom. If they don’t get out in the world and learn how it works, they won’t have the mental resilience they need in life. It’s not dangerous to go outside if you do the assessments and you plan the trip really well.

The only downside is that it means a lot more work for our teachers, it is so regulated it makes it hard. But we want to show that it can be done, show the benefits of taking them outside and hopefully make some changes in the regulations, to soften it up a little bit. Because it has gone too far now. Ironically, children get less ill when they spend more time outdoors. There are so many health benefits, they get better vision, more exercise. Parents often ask me, “what will you do if it rains?” Or “are you really going to open in January”, but it’s a matter of the clothes you put on, keeping them dry and warm.

SGI: And rather than going into a nursery, inside of a classroom and perceiving that space as the one place where you will learn of which when they leave, they will finish learning. You show the child that they can learn everywhere.

HM: We are not leaving the classroom; we are opening it up.

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Helene Mark moved from Denmark to London ten years ago to join a start-up working to analyse football games using mathematical algorithms. Over the next decade as COO, Helene oversaw the company as it grew from five to two hundred employees. Tasked to find great analysts, statisticians and all-round tech experts, Helene soon came to realise that top grades did not necessarily correlate with how well someone would perform. After nine years, she decided to leave the company. Through a combined eagerness to change the education system and create a nursery that celebrated holistic learning, nature and community, Outdoor Owls was born.

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