Richard Kirby wants to get more children (and schools) into outdoor learning and growing their own vegetables… and playing in dens.
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 colourblind, 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… oh, 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.”
I can’t stress how important it is for children to get outside. All the outdoor classrooms we have built have been praised by the teachers, the schools and most of the time they cost less than the pre-fab versions but aesthetically, they are just beautiful.Richard Kirby, from Outdoor Classrooms, Calverley
Richard’s company, Outdoor Classrooms Ltd, 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.
He explains: “Most people are used to getting pressure treated woods but there’s a lot of chemicals in there which are not good for kids. Larch and western red cedar, on the other hand, have natural chemicals which fight fungus and boring insects, they are safe for kids.
“I can’t stress how important it is for children to get outside. All the outdoor classrooms we have built have been praised by the teachers, the schools and most of the time they cost less than the pre-fab versions but aesthetically, they are just beautiful. It’s just a different way of learning, of engaging the kids.”
Times are hard, however. School budgets have all but evaporated, which has forced Richard and his company to branch out, so-to-speak.
“While budgets are tight, we are offering to build the same high quality timber framed constructions we do for schools for private individuals. All of our products are built to incredibly high standards, they are over-engineered in effect, so they can withstand the weather and wear and tear - we recently built a house at Ripponden on the top of the Pennines, which is so warm inside you would not believe [it’s insulated with lamb’s wool]. Whether it’s a garden office, garage, playhouse, teepee, granny flat, we can build it.”
He adds: “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.”
Outdoor Classrooms Ltd makes timber framed outdoor classrooms from sustainable, locally sourced timber
They also build dens, playhouses, teepees, planters, benches and a full range of learning resources for children… they have even built a timber-framed house on the Pennines
OLR has one of the biggest saw mills in the country, able to cut pieces 5ft wide and 30ft long
Richard manages over 500 acres of woodland in Yorkshire
He is offering some materials for den making for free to schools in the area
Tel: 0113 255 6342 or 07808 304 198