Access to, and connection with, nature provides both physical and mental health benefits, as well as allowing children to develop confidence, resilience and an increased focus for learning. Becky O'Melia, engagement manager at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust shares way to make the most of the outdoors
At The Wildlife Trusts we’re passionate about outdoor learning. Gone are the days of soggy biology field trips or optional outdoor adventure weeks - we believe that every child has the right to experience learning in nature, and enjoy the benefits that studying in wild places brings. Opportunities to learn outside the classroom should be part of the curriculum – as natural history studies in their own right or woven through the fabric of school days.
There’s a wealth of research to support this approach. Access to, and connection with, nature provides both physical and mental health benefits, as well as allowing children to develop confidence, resilience and an increased focus for learning.
There’s evidence too to suggest that these benefits can be gained on and off a school site. Access to outdoor areas at school, and trips specifically to natural areas have shown to support an increase in educational attainment; the evidence particularly suggests that opportunities for connection to nature also improves English attainment.
What studies show, is that benefits are particularly felt when there’s the opportunity to connect with nature, rather than just the opportunity to visit a greenspace or have access to the outdoors at school. Children should be given the chance to explore, play, experience beauty and develop a deeper relationship with the green and wild places they enjoy. Repeat opportunities, which allow a continued, evolving connection to be made with a space, are even more beneficial.
We know first-hand the incredible power of nature to refresh us, improve our wellbeing and enhance school attainment. Our 30 Days Wild campaign, which runs each June, is a perfect example of how a small amount of time spent with the rest of nature each day can benefit us.
30 Days Wild
This June, over 9000 schools took part in the Wildlife Trusts’ popular 30 Days Wild challenge. The Trusts encourage people to carry out a Random Act of Wildness every day for a month and provide free, specially designed packs for homes and schools, which are full of ideas and inspiration like eating lunch outdoors, a race to find the colours of the rainbow or create a map showing where different wildlife is found. It’s a great way to help children think more about and notice nature and the wider world and to help teachers work in some outdoor learning to everyday classes.
30 Days Wild also shows the wider benefits of going outdoors. Kieron Turney, a teacher who leads the Nature Club at Handsworth Grange Community Sports College in Sheffield said: “This is the third year the school has taken part in 30 Days Wild and it’s such a great challenge. This year we focused on how the activities have improved the pupil's wellbeing and mental health. The kids have enjoyed different and innovative outdoor activities and had time away from their mobile phones too. Spending time outdoors, learning about nature and wildlife is so important for the next generation and it’s helped them feel refreshed, more focused and ready to return to more formal classes.”
Put the 30 Days Wild June challenge in your 2020 diary - sign up to request a pack opens in mid-April on The Wildlife Trusts’ website.
Opportunities for outdoor learning
How can you enhance opportunities for your class to learn outdoors? School grounds are a great place to start. A huge variety of lessons can simply be taken outdoors, a school playground offers endless opportunities for exploring shapes and symmetry, a shady spot is a great place for a story, or area of long grass or a planted border offers the opportunity for starting habitat comparisons and insect identification and exploration.
Simple changes to your school grounds, like choosing to leave a patch of your playing field to grow longer or creating a log circle, can provide opportunities for outdoor learning. These areas can come with some responsibility, for example a pond requires maintenance throughout the year, so ongoing costs, and a decision about who will be responsible for the management and of course safety, should be considered before making any major changes to your school grounds. However, adding a pond to your school grounds is not only excellent for outdoor learning, it will provide a wonderful space for wildlife; giving children the chance to watch how tadpoles develop, see a frog face to face, or watch a water lily unfold. So it is well worth the consideration!
Don’t be afraid to take your class outdoors during the winter months, or when the sun isn’t shining. Chances to experience changing seasons and different weather patterns enhance the connection to nature, crunching autumn leaves, wondering at the beauty of snowflakes, or finding the first flowers of spring can all contribute to develop a lifelong love of nature. Try a study of a single tree in your school grounds throughout the seasons: start at the beginning of the autumn term and get to know the tree with your class throughout their school year. Not only will the study of one tree support you with a huge range of curriculum links, it will also provide the children with a connection to that specific tree as they get to know it throughout the year. You could try taking bark and leaf rubbings to create art, writing stories about the tree and the lives it supports (a mature oak tree can support over 250 species!), or estimating how tall it is.
School grounds are also a fantastic space for play, and child-centred learning. Allowing children access to these spaces in their lunch breaks, or providing after school clubs which focus on outdoor play offer extra opportunities.
Exploring further afield
If you’d like to go further afield, The Wildlife Trusts provide incredible destinations for school trips across the UK and can give you and your class a hands-on day of wildlife experiences. Visits to nature reserves, beaches and local green spaces allow a chance to explore different habitats, and to experience wildlife in a different way. Trusts offer learning activities that can’t be delivered on school grounds and lots of locations have purpose-built classrooms and facilities. Alongside day visits, many Wildlife Trusts offer repeat visits through Forest School or Wildbeach.
We understand that starting outdoor learning or finding ways to improve opportunities for outdoor play can be daunting. The Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, for example, offers advice on enhancing your school grounds, teacher training to empower you with the skills and confidence to use your own grounds as well as instruction for deepening connections with nature.