The Open Air School: Lessons


In Bradford 100 or more years ago, a child could expect to go to a school which had been built for function, not for comfort.  Lofty classrooms, windows placed too high for children to gaze out of and dark painted pitch pine walls were typical.  The only heating was from iron hot-water pipes or open fires, and the buildings were so cold in winter that both staff and children had high rates of absence because of chest, nose and throat infections.

Practical subjects such as cookery and woodwork had recently been introduced into schools, and trips to parks or local fields had begun to take place, so that children could play games and study nature.  But rules were strict and lessons were formal, although the youngest children were beginning to be taught in a more relaxed way, with less rigid attitudes to discipline.

Rural Thackley at the time the Open Air School was built in Buck Wood

Against this background the regime and atmosphere of the Open Air School at Thackley was remarkable for its time.  An important part of this system was the way that the children there were taught.  The curriculum made the most of the open air and surroundings of Buck Wood, putting together lessons and subjects into an integrated scheme that suited the mixed abilities and ages of the children there.

And because the Open Air School was outside the normal academic system which stressed the importance of good results in classes and exams, and because of the emphasis placed on health, a more experimental and innovative approach could be taken. 

After only a couple of years the school was already enhanced by shrubs and flowers round the buildings

Many of the lessons focused on the garden areas which adjoined the school buildings.  From the beginning, flowers were grown in front of the school, mainly by the girls, which, said the first head teacher, Miss Simpson,  ‘answers two purposes – that of providing a succession of blooms for the table, and beautifying the immediate surroundings of the school – thus inculcating in the children a love for the artistic and the beautiful’.  Miss Simpson added that other areas were divided into vegetable plots, the produce becoming part of the school meals.  ‘Gardening,’  she pointed out, ‘is an admirable subject for open air schools, as so much outdoor work can be done in connection with it, and so many subjects made to correlate with it, thus giving continuity to the work.’ And since the children were taught outside or on open verandas except in the worst of weathers, both ‘literary and manual’ subjects could be adapted to outdoor activities, especially gardening.

Arithmetic was the subject that seems to have been most imaginatively integrated into gardening.  The plots, paths and seed beds were measured.  The amount of seed required was calculated.  Crops were weighed and their value at current prices worked out.  Charts of weather conditions were compiled for yearly comparisons of growth and productivity.  And, as the head teacher throughout most of the school’s existence, Mr Norman, said, by ‘soliciting the help of the farmer’, use was also made of farmland adjacent to the school, where the children learnt to understand larger measures of area such as acres, roods, and poles, ‘and the child’s fears of ‘square measure’ calculations are dissipated’.

Many other lessons took advantage of the school’s woodland location.  ‘In geography’, Mr Norman wrote, ‘the teacher is aided by the fortunate situation of the school, for the hills, valleys, river, canal, etc., form the accessible realities from which the fundamentals of practical geography are learned’.

Nature study syllabus, 1st term

It was,  however, in Nature Study lessons that the gardens, woodland and fields were invaluable.  The earliest syllabus demonstrates how central this subject was to the philosophy of the school, and to the need of the children for fresh air and activity as ‘a sure and safe aid to the re-establishment of the child’s well-being.’

The tree-lined path in front of the line of buildings

Many former pupils remembered their lessons and walks in Buck Wood with fondness in later years, and some still recalled the knowledge  that they gained as a result of this imaginative syllabus, one which made the most of the idyllic setting of the school in Buck Wood

Dr Hester Marvell, 2021

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Dr Hester Marvell, 2021

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