Adventure learning at Crystal Palace Park - RSA

Adventure learning at Crystal Palace Park


  • Education
  • Community engagement

The Oxford Dictionary defines adventures as “unusual and exciting or daring experiences” and learning as “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience or being taught”. Adventure learning is about harnessing unusual and exciting or daring experiences as a way to support teaching and learning in our school classrooms. Hugh Dames FRSA argues that the RSA’s historical link with one example – the Adventure Learning Crystal Palace Park – speaks to the Society’s current mission.

Crystal Palace Park was first created in 1854 as a flagship development for the Rational Recreation Movement of the 19th century, which sought to introduce learning opportunities into people’s growing leisure time. Themed around discovery and invention, according to The Sydenham Crystal Palace Expositor 3, the vision of the directors leading the development of the new Crystal Palace and grounds was that it be an “illustrated encyclopaedia of this great and varied universe, where every art and every science may find a place, and where every visitor may find something to interest”. In short, it was to be a place for learning within a new society of learning.

In a time when relatively few had travelled the country let alone gone abroad, when leisure was still a concept for the few, and before electricity or electronic media, coming to the Crystal Palace in Sydenham was very much about learning adventures.

A visitor could wander the rooms of an Egyptian Palace or an Alhambra Court, see arts and crafts from across the colonies and gaze upon the latest industrial and technological innovations from around the world. Stepping out of the palace and into the park, visitors could stand amongst dinosaur figures modelled from newly discovered fossils and experience the vast potential of the industrial revolution through thrilling rides on a prototype fan propelled underground train, an early roller-coaster, steam powered joy wheel or water ride.  

Fast-forward to 2016 and the Adventure Learning Crystal Palace Park was launched to offer schools curriculum-linked outdoor experiences that help bring classroom studies to life. The programme covers all areas of the primary curriculum. Pupils come to the park to join expeditions to discover and classify mini beasts (Science), weave and daub an Anglo-Saxon farm (History), use maps made of sticks and leaves to rescue Fluffy from Dinosaur Valley (Geography), plot a new train line to optimal gradient (Maths) or re-enact texts being studied at school (English).   

Although the Palace burned down in 1936, the original learning themes remain a key element in the park’s overall layout and features. The Roman terraces and Egyptian sphinxes built at the base of the iron and glass engineering marvel that was the Crystal Palace were designed to inform visitors that Victorian engineering innovations were built on the achievements of these past civilisations. These are perfect for today’s Key Stage 2 Roman Britain adventures. The dinosaurs that still stand at the base of the park were modelled from newly discovered fossils of the 19th century so that these latest discoveries could be shared with the people. These now offer an ideal starting point for Key Stage1-2 expeditions exploring habitats.  The man-made geological strata face showing seams of coal and iron ore – used to instruct the 19th century visitor on the raw materials of the industrial revolution – remains a fantastic resource for adventures into rocks and soils and history from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.

In addition to those features introduced intentionally to educate, there are other relics of the Palace and park that speak to todays curriculum; the concrete footings to the iron pillars of the palace (Design Technology); the subway and its steps that once took first class passengers from the train platforms directly into the Palace nave (History); the bases of Isambard Brunel’s mighty water towers that fed the enormous water fountains (Key Stage1-2 Forces in Nature); and the concrete feet to the topsy turvy railway, joy wheel and other steam-powered fairground amusements (Key Stage 1-2 Forces in Nature). 

This park is an incredible resource for learning adventures and is in part a legacy of the RSA, which championed of the Rational Recreation movement. It was Henry Cole of the Society of the Arts who persuaded Prince Albert to give his backing to the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace of 1851.  As well as directing that the profits from the Great Exhibition be used to found the V&A, Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, Prince Albert gave his support (and Royal Seal) to the relocation of the temporary palace to Sydenham in 1854 as a permanent cultural institution.  

The Adventure Learning Programme at Crystal Palace Park harnesses this history, its relics and the natural features of this great park as both a setting and a resource to support learning. We know it works; schools have rated the programme as ‘Outstanding’. Our evaluations align with government-funded studies that show that over 90% of students and teachers find outdoor learning more enjoyable and engaging, and that it is a great way to deliver the curriculum.

With the primary offer established in the park, the programme is looking to get more people – including RSA Fellows – engaged. We want to expand our offer across lifelong learning, including secondary schools and adult learning, ESOL and Active Retirement. In return, we believe Adventure Learning Crystal Palace Park offers exactly the kind of learning asset the RSA’s Cities of Learning wants in its mission to be “mobilising the learning assets across a city and transforming them into a network of seamless pathways of in-school, out-of-school and online experiences.”

There is every reason to imagine Cities of Learning being just as transformative over time as the Rational Recreation movement of the 1800s has proven, and Adventure Learning Crystal Palace Park is a unique way to connect those two narratives into one.

Hugh Dames FRSA is the Project Lead for the Adventure Learning Crystal Palace Park and would be delighted to hear from anyone with information about the Crystal Palace and its grounds that might be relevant to the Adventure Learning Programme for schools or an expanded lifelong learning programme. This includes any information relating to the School of Practical Engineering and the Crystal Palace School of Art, Science, and Literature that were both based in the Palace. To find out more visit




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