Richard Kirby wants to get more children into outdoor learning fuelled by his own experiences. Neil Hudson meets him
You might say Richard Kirby has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. Having left school with no O-levels (he failed his English exam three times), diagnosed as dyslexic and unable to follow his in his father’s footsteps as an electrician after discovering he was colour-blind, he fell back on sheer hard work and determination.
“As a child, I was always playing out, climbing trees, playing in ponds and making dens,” says the 46-year-old. In a roundabout way, that’s still what he does today, except that now he builds outdoor classrooms and other learning tools for schools – and the odd timber-framed house on the Yorkshire moors.
His journey from school drop-out to business owner has been far from straightforward but, says the married father-of-two, he is passionate about getting children to better appreciate the outdoors and to that end is even offering to give some of his products away for free to schools.
“That’s one of the things we are doing at the moment,” says Richard. “We’re just in a difficult financial position at the moment because a lot of schools just don’t have the budgets but we have materials here which they can come and collect for free to help children make dens and so on.
“Research has shown that, particularly at lunchtimes and playtimes, if children have something to play with that’s creative, behaviour improves. If energetic children have something like den making or construction, it focuses and channels their energy. All these materials we can offer for free.”
Richard’s company, Calverley-based Outdoor Classrooms, has worked with hundreds of schools across Yorkshire over the past 25 years, including Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield, where they recently installed a timber framed outdoor classroom. They also have installed some of their pieces at Pudsey Lowtown Primary School, including a Viking longboat, a forest throne at Valley View Primary; their work can also be seen in the maze in the playground at Temple Newsam and the totem pole on the village green in Gildersome.
“For kids it’s all about using their senses, it’s tactile, it’s something which aids development of language. I would encourage schools to do more with children outdoors. English and maths can be taught outside, whether it’s using blocks to build, they are using maths, spacial awareness, dexterity, fine and gross motor skills, upper body strength, which leads into fine skills like writing, left-right brain connections, learning to work in a group, there’s so much in terms of benefits.
“If kids are inside all the time and they are not moving about as much, they are losing opportunities for learning and development. You want them to be able to deal with risk but in a controlled way that’s not going to cause large injuries. This is one way to do that.” Richard’s career path began one day when he decided to borrow his father’s garden shears. “I have three brothers, who all went to university, so when I left school I didn’t know what to do. I knew no-one was going to just give me a job, so one day I just borrowed my dad’s shears and went next door to ask if they wanted their hedge cutting, I then went round the village like that. Sometimes people couldn’t afford to pay me but I would just ask them to give what they could.” A brief office-job at a Stanningley insurance brokers led to him working with a solicitor, who taught him how to write a letter but it was while working there he spotted a book entitled ‘Forestry, a Growth Sector’.
“I remember seeing the title of the book and thinking, that’s me. It gave him an idea. It was the early 1990s and environmental issues were becoming more popular, so, he began collecting information on everything from fuel consumption to gardening, using empty cereal packets as a filing system, with the ultimate intention of writing a short book.
The result was Leeds & Bradford Green Directory, which he hawked around to local schools, offering them the chance of selling copies at £2 a go, giving the profits to schoolground environmental improvement. He managed to shift 5,000. His hard work more than paid off. “After a while, some came back to ask what they could spend the money on they had raised from selling the book? That’s when I first started making planters and benches and things like that.”
To get the materials to help schools develop their grounds, Richard also took on a five-year contract managing woodland at Esholt for Yorkshire Water. Whilst there he set up a tree nursery and grew hundreds of thousands of trees, which he gave away to schools so they could plant their own woodland corners.
Today, he manages a private 500-acre estate at New Farnley, plus another one in North Yorkshire, from where he sources his raw product, which is for the most part larch or western red cedar, both woods which are child friendly.
“I can’t stress how important it is for children to get outside,” he says.
Times are hard, however. School budgets have all but evaporated, which has forced Richard and his company to branch out into private sales.
“One thing we are trying to promote at the moment is the idea of outdoor farming for children. We have already done this in a couple of school, where we made mini-ploughs for the kids, it’s all about getting them to understand food, grow vegetables and ultimately to have a better diet and hopefully grow up healthy.”
Research by the National Trust has shown that children are now spending only half as much time playing outdoors as their parents’ generation did.
The survey showed that 84 per cent of parents believe that playing outdoors makes their children more imaginative and creative, while 96 per cent felt it was important for children to have a connection with nature.
These findings are supported by Child Developmental Psychologist Dr. Sam Wass, who said: “Being outdoors, with space to run around, is something that benefits all children… they have to use their imagination and their own creativity much more they do when they are indoors, watching screen media. [These] are vital life skills that will help children stay attuned to nature and to the environment throughout their adult lives.”
■ Outdoor Classrooms Ltd makes timber-framed outdoor classrooms from sustainable, locally sourced timber
Tel: 0113 255 6342 or 07808 304 198