Parks as learning spaces

For my Digital Civics MRes project I created Park:Learn, a mobile application designed to enable situated mobile learning within local parks. Parks have suffered huge funding cuts due to their low priority within local authorities’ budgets: in 2014, the Heritage Lottery fund found that 86% of park managers have seen their funding slashed since 2010. This has especially affected the parks’ abilities to function as a learning resource, with many parks introducing fees for school trips.

We found further evidence of this when we visited some of the parks in the Newcastle area. Due to a loss of funding Jesmond Dene no longer has a dedicated education officer, with many of the existing educational materials going unused as a result. The issue has been further compounded by schools also suffering a series of yearly budget cuts.

Park:Learn phonePark:Learn

We held a series of exploratory workshops and visits to the parks in the Newcastle area in order to learn more about the issue, its causes and effects. We found that park rangers and teachers alike were very keen on holding more outdoor learning activities in their local parks. Teachers in particular noted that many of the obstacles to doing so (besides budgetary issues) were related to fitting the sessions into their scheme of work and being able to justify them afterwards with evidence of the children’s learning.

In response, I developed a Park:Learn prototype. This mobile learning application allows for the completion of park-based learning activities, utilising the capabilities of the user’s device, the park environment and the joint expertise of teachers and experts within the local community, such as the rangers.

The learning activities were created through the suggestions given by the teachers and rangers, and are made up of tasks involving photography, audio and video recording, drawing, typing, map-reading and location hunting via GPS.

The app in action

We piloted the application in Exhibition Park, with 23 children aged 4-12. Over the course of the session over 160 photos were taken, alongside David Attenborough-style video documentaries and drawings.

Park:Learn useThe app was extremely popular with the children, who said that the creative acts of taking photographs and recording video made learning subjects like habitats “more interesting and exciting”. They also claimed with certainty that they would enjoy using a tool like this in future school trips.

However, this pilot prototype was just that – a pilot for a bigger, more impactful project. In future work we aim to be able to allow teachers and community experts to create and share these activities in the application, allowing for the creation of a sustainable, community-driven platform for outdoor learning activities.

Ideally, we eventually want children to be able to create these activities for their peers, as creation is often regarded as a path towards deep learning reflection. We hope that this will lead to local parks being better utilised as educational resources and, as a result, increase their perceived value.

For more information please contact Dan Richardson.

Author: Dan Richardson

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