Nature Friendly Schools project will benefit thousands of pupils
Having access to nature benefits children’s mental health, their wellbeing and their ability to learn. This suggests that outdoor learning should be an important part of a child’s education, yet despite mounting evidence, time spent learning outdoors varies significantly in schools across England. While some schools are fully embracing outdoor learning opportunities, for other schools it is more difficult.
Learning outdoors, surrounded by nature can have a positive impact on long term memory, knowledge and understanding, educational attainment and behaviour [Kings College: 2011]. As little as one hour of outdoor learning each week can have huge benefits for both children and teachers [Swansea University: 2019].
A key commitment in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan is to encourage children to be close to nature – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. To help achieve this, £6.4 million of funding has been made available by the Department of Education through the Children and Nature Programme to deliver the Nature Friendly Schools project.
The project is being led by the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts together with partners including YoungMinds, Sensory Trust, Groundwork, Field Studies Council and Wildlife Trusts. Over the next three years, children at almost 400 primary, secondary, special and alternative provision schools in England with the highest proportion of disadvantaged pupils will be given the opportunity to spend up to two hours learning outside the classroom every week.
Nature Friendly Schools Project Manager, Beverley Gormley, explains: “Every child deserves the best opportunities when it comes to their education and this needs to include access to nature and learning outdoors. A significant barrier to outdoor learning appears to be a lack of teacher confidence in delivering curriculum-based learning in an outdoor setting, which is why we are working with schools to provide teachers with the resources and skills they need to confidently deliver lessons outdoors.”
An increasing number of studies, reports and surveys are showing not only a direct correlation between wellbeing and access to nature, but also a lack of access and connection to nature among children and young people.
Young people’s connection to nature drops sharply at 11 and doesn’t recover until they are 30 [University of Derby: 2019]. 83% of British children aged 5-16 can’t identify a bumblebee [Hoop study: 2019]. 17% of youngsters aged 17-19 already have a mental health disorder [NHS survey: 2017].
Beverley adds: “Some schools are already blessed with green space, with parks and nature reserves on their doorstep and wildlife close by. For these schools, the opportunities to learn in nature are clear to see. In fact, some schools are already creating inviting outdoor areas to play and learn. But there is also an abundance of schools in built up areas with concrete playgrounds, situated several miles from a park or open green space. For these schools outdoor learning may seem like a daunting concept, maybe even unrealistic, but it doesn’t need to be. There are inventive low maintenance solutions to incorporate nature into any school and make the most of the outdoor space they have to create an exciting and inspiring area for children to learn outside of the classroom.”
By teaching outside the classroom, children are being taught that learning occurs everywhere and at all times – not just inside with a book and pen in hand.
Nature Friendly Schools will work with schools to encourage the delivery of outdoor learning through a variety of interventions.
- Training and support
Training and practical support will be provided for teachers and school staff. This will include ideas for curriculum-linked outdoor lessons, activities and games, as well as advice on how to overcome the challenges of teaching outdoors and how to sustain it all year round, in all weather conditions.
- Greener school grounds
Low maintenance opportunities to 'green' school grounds will be identified, providing schools with the opportunity to create outdoor spaces with features such as wildflower patches, sensory gardens, and container beds/ponds to enable effective and creative outdoor learning to take place. These will be designed in collaboration with staff and pupils and will allow children to experience nature close-up - from beautiful butterflies to mini-beasts, and maybe even an encounter with a frog!
- Off-site visits
Opportunities will be identified for pupils to take part in out of school activities to explore the range of green spaces they can access, increasing the topics that can be taught outdoors. Learning opportunities that are not possible on school grounds - such as residential visits, can also be explored.
These interventions will maximise the opportunities for teachers to facilitate outdoor learning, providing children with the opportunity to get closer to nature, fuelling creativity and a sense of adventure, allowing them to experience the joy that nature can bring. At the same time, they will help to develop teachers’ confidence to embrace and drive forward outdoor learning in their own schools.
In its first year the project will work with nearly 100 schools in six areas in England - Birmingham, Devon, Essex, Lancashire, Shropshire and Yorkshire, rolling out to other areas in years two and three.
Nature Friendly Schools has the ambition to become a legacy project. Through the ‘share, learn, improve’ approach it is hoped that the skills and confidence gained by participating in the project will enable schools to embed outdoor learning into their timetable and share what they have learned with other schools.
The project will include an independent evaluation which can inform policy and influence decision makers on the benefits and practicalities involved with outdoor learning.