The birth of Empty Classroom Day

23rd October 2018

Did you know, Outdoor Classroom Day originally started as Empty Classroom Day? Here its founder, Anna Portch, tells us about its journey.

On Monday 7th November 2011, London Sustainable Schools Foundation (LSSF) – chaired by Martin Crabbe –  hosted a “Springboard to Action” event in “London’s living room” at the top of City Hall.

The room was bursting with teachers, local authorities and NGO’s with one primary focus: make London schools more sustainable. Inspired by fabulous panoramic views of the city, Tony Crabbe encouraged us to solve our sustainable schools problems with some positive business thinking.

I was chairing the playgrounds and outdoor spaces table and we were all feeling pretty glum. Tim Gill’s report “Sowing the Seeds: Reconnecting London’s Children with Nature” had come out and it made for sobering reading. It said:

“Children’s experiences of natural places in the capital have been in long-term decline”.

It also provided evidence that this decline was steepest in poorer families. This seemed bitterly unfair; playing outside can be free!

And whilst the report mentioned the various outdoor spaces we all worked at, it suggested that we could be reaching as little as 4% of the capital’s children.

When we started on an exercise of turning the negatives into positives, our table drew a blank. We were disheartened. So we started sharing memories of being outside as children.

One of my happiest childhood memories was getting an extended lunch break when I was about eight. Our teachers let us carry on making dens with the recently cut grass on the school field.


What struck us was how simple this – and all the other memories – was.

Just being outside. Being with other children. Getting out in all kinds of weather.

We agreed we were sick of the bad news stories about children not going outside enough. It was time to create a good news story.

After coming up with over hundreds of ideas, one shone out above all the others: Empty Classroom Day.

The aim? Every school in London would take one extra lesson outside on the same day of the year.


I left the event in love with the idea; it became my new obsession.

The day was set for a Friday in the summer term. Immediately, it was all hands on deck. Project Dirt made a sign in page. Brian Lewis (Pontefract Artist and Writer) made us a logo. LSSF and London Environmental Educators Forum (LEEF) members put welly into getting teachers signed up.

The result was amazing: 108 schools signed up to the first Empty Classroom Day.

Of course, great British weather struck. On Friday 6th July 2012, I woke up to news that severe weather warnings had been issued. The first ever Empty Classroom Day was a complete wash out.

Christine Evans from Wolsey Junior School had invited me to join them outside to celebrate the day. Amazingly, despite the downpour, a brave group of children took me out to show me their raised beds and to hunt for insects. We joked that the name needed to be changed to “Take your wellies to school day”.

Yet, despite this weather, teachers kept texting me about their class going outside: rain or no rain. Participants posted pictures of empty classrooms with rain falling outside on social media. Even those who didn’t take part sent emails asking “when is the next one, we want to put it in our school diary now?”

Teachers are brilliant people who perform miracles every day. On the first ever Empty Classroom Day, many of them committed to making learning and playing outside fun – even in torrential rain.

Now it was time to get serious. English weather couldn’t beat us. Martin Crabbe (always the geography teacher) reminded me that:

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”.


However, I needed some help. Somehow I managed to recruit the spread sheet supremo, ex-play worker Zoe Slade, to join us as a volunteer. She got to work encouraging schools to sign up and we got planning for the next year. Sara Gelfgren made us a wonderful new logo an in 2013 a whopping 160 schools took part.

But something even more unexpected happened (no, not just that the weather was lovely). A school from Naples in Italy signed up! We were unsurprisingly delighted and toasted “International Empty Classroom Day” in a pub in London.

As happens with all great volunteers, Zoe got a job and so the social media savvy teaching assistant Chris Robson joined the family s our new volunteer. A new website was built by Chris. National organisations – such as Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) – started playing a part in promoting the campaign and making it bigger and better.

In 2014, 313 schools joined the movement. Empty Classroom Day was now not only being celebrated in this country, but also in Ireland, China, Australia and Pakistan.

Whole schools were taking ALL their lessons into the playground and some even made it a week long event.

It was incredible hearing the details of what schools did for the day. I always remember Musgrove Primary School taking whole year groups to the beach after finding out that many of their pupils had never seen the sea.

2015 arrived and we needed even more help: we welcomed admin whizz Mari Lopez to the team. Awards for All paid for workshops in schools and the numbers doubled again.  A total of 652 schools from 15 countries took part: wow.

Empty Classroom Day had got bigger than anyone could have ever imagined. Sitting in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, Martin, Chris, Nick from Project Dirt and I realised that our baby had turned into a joyous, muddy giant!


It was too big to keep running as volunteers. We had to make a change; but we had no idea what was going to come next.

Outdoor Classroom Day was about to be born; a worldwide celebration of nurturing children and young people through nature. Today we have over 2 and a half million children signed up to our outdoor movement around the world.

Will you join them?

One thought on "The birth of Empty Classroom Day"

  1. Zoe Slade says:

    I was very lucky to get to work on this in its second year. I got to meet some really amazing and inspiring people, hang out with a school doing some very fun and interesting activities, and judge a photo competition which showed the amazing range of activities that took place that day. I have been so happy watching this day grow and go from strength to strength.

    Look out for your opportunities to take part in Outdoor Classroom Day every year!

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