Pioneering ‘Nature Friendly Schools’ to boost children’s learning and well-being at a critical time

Almost 30,000 school children from disadvantaged areas are set to enjoy classes in nature this spring in a ground-breaking outdoor learning project spearheaded by The Wildlife Trusts.

Nature Friendly Schools gives children from some of the poorest communities in the country opportunities to learn outside the classroom, while supporting their well-being, mental health, and engagement with school.

Imagine maths next to a wildlife pond in the inner city, English under the shade of an ancient oak, or science classes through real life experiences in the natural world...

The project enters a new phase at a critical time, after a year when children have been isolated from the natural world, learnt behind screens, and suffered a substantial rise in mental health issues.[i] Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are known to have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, especially in terms of access to green space.[ii]

Nature Friendly Schools gives those pupils a lifeline to spend some of their day learning outdoors, encouraging motivation, confidence, and creativity.

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, says: “Learning in nature boosts children’s well-being, confidence, and behaviour, and should be a fundamental part of a child’s experience in education. We’re delighted at the success of the project so far. We know that children in deprived areas are much less likely to have contact with nature while the pandemic also increased screen-based learning. The new phase of Nature Friendly Schools is more important than ever for them. In spite of its proven success, the Nature Friendly Schools initiative is not guaranteed to see out its final year. We believe the need for this project has never been greater and it is vital it continues so we can give more children opportunities to learn, play and get creative in wild, green spaces.”

Anna Gordon, Community Engagement and Education Advisor at Essex Wildlife Trust, said: "Essex Wildlife Trust are so proud to be part of this fantastic project. We have worked with ten schools in year one of the project and are just starting to work with a further ten schools. We work together with the school to help them to take as much of their learning outside as possible by increasing teacher confidence and improving the outdoor environment available to the staff and pupils. At this time where so much learning has had to move on to screens it is great to see children getting outdoors and engaging with exciting hands on learning experiences."

Now needed more than ever, the project, funded by Defra and the Department for Education - and supported by Natural England, is increasing its reach this year. Nature Friendly Schools aims to work with more than 100 schools – in areas of the highest levels of social deprivation – and give almost 30,000 pupils opportunities to learn and play in nature as part of their education recovery.

Despite disruptions to education over the last year, the project has already worked in 90 schools, enabling 16,000 pupils to benefit from learning in nature, training 500 teachers in outdoor learning and supporting pupil’s mental health – and transforming 30 school grounds.

Through expert training, Nature Friendly Schools empowers teachers to deliver outdoor classes independently, helping them overcome barriers that made it challenging to head out into nature before. This includes making the most of limited outside space, managing behaviour outdoors, and helping teachers measure learning outside of a conventional classroom. Nature Friendly Schools also rewilds school grounds, creating outdoor classrooms and greener, more natural spaces around school buildings.

The project was initially planned to run over four years, benefitting over 100,000 primary and secondary ages pupils. With funding not guaranteed for the final year, up to 46,000 pupils are expected to take part.

A huge impact

Research from The Wildlife Trusts and UCL shows that spending time in nature has a hugely positive impact on children’s health and well-being. Their Nature Nurtures Children study revealed the educational, social and wellbeing benefits of outdoor learning. After taking part in Wildlife Trust-led activities:

  • 79% of children surveyed felt that their experience could help their schoolwork
  • 81% agreed that they had better relationships with their teachers
  • 84% felt that they were capable of doing new things when they tried
  • 79% reported better relationships with their classmates.(iii)

Nature Friendly Schools brings together a unique partnership which includes:

  • The Wildlife Trusts – are a leading provider of outdoor nature education
  • YoungMinds – leading the movement to make sure every young person gets the mental health support they need, when they need it, no matter what.
  • Groundwork – transforming young lives in the most disadvantaged communities
  • Sensory Trust – experts in ensuring children with special needs enjoy access to nature
  • Field Studies Council – inspires environmental education through residential courses

Deirdre Kehoe, Director of Training and Services at YoungMinds says: “We’re proud to be part of the Nature Friendly Schools partnership, a vital project giving children and young people outdoor learning opportunities. We know that many children and young people have struggled with their mental health as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and that those who were already impacted by inequalities are likely to be most affected. Now more than ever, they need the space to process what they have been through in an environment that is supportive for their mental health as well as their learning.”

Stephanie Dowley, Headteacher at John Randall Primary in Telford, says: “Nature Friendly Schools has been transformative for our pupils and our school. Every class now spends at least an hour learning outside each day in our forest school area, which is brilliant for the children. Their senses come alive, encouraging creativity and confidence. After the year children have had – much of the time being stuck at home and away from their peers – learning and playing together in nature isn’t just helpful – it’s essential.”

Kim Leathy, Teacher at Westminster Academy in Blackpool, says: “Nature Friendly Schools has been so beneficial for our pupils and our school. Many children come into school with different anxieties, but when they’re learning outside, they are present in the moment, and their worries just seem to fade away. Being outdoors also works wonders for their creativity and enthusiasm for learning – and improves behaviour as well. Learning in nature has become a keystone part of their education.”

Editor's Notes

References

[1] Child mental health in England before and after the Covid 19 pandemic https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(20)30570-8/fulltext

[1] The Ramblers – the Grass isn’t Greener - http://www.ramblers.org.uk/thegrassisntgreener

[1] Nature Nurtures Children – evaluating the impact that experiencing nature has on children. https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/news/new-report-nature-nurtures-children

Nature Friendly Schools

Nature Friendly Schools (NFS) is led by The Wildlife Trusts and supported by a consortium of the UK’s leading outdoor learning and mental health and wellbeing organisations; YoungMinds, Field Studies Council, Groundwork UK and the Sensory Trust. The project is funded by Defra and the Department of Education, and supported by Natural England.

By developing teachers’ confidence and ability to drive forward outdoor learning schools, Nature Friendly Schools gives thousands of children from some of the most deprived areas in England the opportunity to get closer to nature benefitting their learning, health and wellbeing, and care and concern for the environment. It fuels creativity and a sense of adventure, and enables pupils from disadvantaged areas to experience the joy that nature can bring.

Nature Friendly Schools case studies

Burlington Junior School in Yorkshire renovated a neglected pond and held classes in nearby woodland as part of their participation in Nature Friendly Schools. Teacher Matthew Clark, who led the project, said many students came out of their shell when learning outside.  He said, “Some pupils don’t get talk about their feelings at home, while others feel hemmed in inside a classroom. Being outdoors gives them the opportunity to think and feel and express themselves in different ways.”

At Stockwell Academy in Hull, an outdoor classroom was created with an allotment, fire pit, herb garden and seating area. The school also rewilded a corner of their school for insects and butterflies, and began holding some classes outside in the autumn.  Teacher, Mark Hemmerman, said “We noted improved communication between the children when undertaking tasks, and children who were initially shy, come out of their shell. We saw brilliance in the children's imaginations as they showed evidence of intuition. My enthusiasm is still as high as it was at the start and my sights are set on the spring term now and hoping we can get all of the classes to do some planting.”

For more case studies on Nature Friendly Schools, please visit: www.naturefriendlyschools.co.uk/case-studies

Nature Nurtures Children

Nature Nurtures Children

The Wildlife Trusts commissioned a study by the Institute of Education at University College London (UCL) to evaluate the impact that experiencing nature has upon children. The study focused on primary school children and the effects of Wildlife Trust-led activities on their wellbeing. This is one of the largest studies into the effects of outdoor activities on children’s wellbeing and views about nature. Overall, the research revealed that children’s wellbeing increased after they had spent time connecting with nature.

Nature Nurtures Children – A summary of research from The Wildlife Trusts – UCL, 2019

Last year (2019/20) 368,457 children and adults experienced Wildlife Trust-led nature sessions with schools, care homes and community groups.