Our letter to the Education Select Committee

On behalf of a group of 32 environmental and youth-focused organisations, Our Bright Future has written to the Chair of the Education Select Committee, requesting an inquiry into the vital role of outdoor learning in boosting children’s attainment, resilience and wellbeing.

 

Dear Robert Halfon,

We are a group of thirty-two environmental and youth-focused organisations currently working with hundreds of thousands of children and young people across the UK. We are writing to request an inquiry into the vital role of outdoor learning in boosting children’s attainment, resilience, wellbeing and in helping them to develop and grow into adulthood [1].

The unprecedented pandemic the world is tackling has completely changed the ways in which we socialise, work and learn. With the sudden onset of COVID-19, schools and learning spaces were closed for hundreds of thousands of pupils right across the UK. The resulting isolation for pupils from their support network of friends and trusted adults has had a profound impact on their physical and mental wellbeing with a marked disproportional impact shown on children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with mental health needs[2].

This sudden loss of the safe and inspiring places where children could spend their time learning and playing, and the shift to new ways of schooling is exacerbating inequalities in children's health. In addition, exposing the educational disadvantage gap, with many more children at further risk of falling behind academically as well as developmentally. 

It is evident that our world cannot return to the way it was before this crisis. But one thing we should all take with us as we begin to step forward together is a strong connection to nature.

The myriad benefits have been clear for years but in the last five months especially, nature has proved to provide us all with immeasurable comfort as well as aid. During this period, the key role nature plays in enhancing our children’s resilience has been widely recognised; even more crucial considering the current unprecedent circumstances, and beyond.

Through our extensive experience, we have seen and documented the many benefits that come from outdoor learning and contact with nature in terms of educational attainment across the curriculum, resilience and wellbeing (see Evidence below).

As more pupils start returning to schools, the focus in the coming days will rightly be on their safety, their wellbeing[3] and their personal development, as well as on teachers’ safety and wellbeing. Outdoor learning will play a key role as part of this, helping children catch up, by increasing motivation and re-engagement with learning - particularly for those from low socio-economic backgrounds, who have been affected most during lockdown. In addition, engendering a lifelong habit of nature engagement will help children and young people to feel mentally well. And moving forward, offer something they can return to later in life when facing tough circumstances.

Teaching good environmental awareness and the sustainable stewardship of our lands and seas should be key components to preparing our youth for life. For children and young people, and indeed for all adults too, a positive connection to the natural world certainly provides a strong foundation for long, healthy and fulfilled lives, and especially for the most in need. This connection will be vital to rebalance society’s relationship with the natural world, and to properly address the immediate climate and nature emergencies.

At the same time, we are aware of shrinking budgets, increased pressures for teaching staff, and the limited opportunities we find for young voices to engage in emerging policy, or for sustainable careers or skills development that would enable them to contribute to the sort of 'green' recovery our society now needs. 

Therefore, we believe now is the perfect time for an inquiry into the vital role of outdoor learning in boosting children’s attainment, resilience and wellbeing. 

This would help identify any barriers which stop children connecting with nature during school time, and the steps the Government can take to ensure every child can learn within, about and from nature.

We would be pleased to look into this theme with you in more detail and to contribute (see Examples below): we stand ready to work with your Committee, with the Government and with schools, to help unlock the potential of outdoor learning.

We hope you will agree it is important to consider the true benefits, as well as barriers which could limit future gains while there is a chance, and the motivation, to address them.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive, The Wildlife Trusts

Leigh Middleton, Chief Executive, National Youth Agency

David Sharrod, Chief Executive, Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust

Mark Castle, Chief Executive, Field Studies Council

Simon Roberts OBE, Chief Executive, Centre for Sustainable Energy

Alasdair Roxburgh, Director of Communities and Networks, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland

Marc Whitmore, Chief Executive, UpRising

Gary Mantle, Chief Executive, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust

Jennifer Fulton, Chief Executive, Ulster Wildlife

Ed Green, Chief Executive, Warwickshire Wildlife Trust

Anne Selby, Chief Executive, Wildlife Trust for Lancashire Manchester and Merseyside

Carolyn Cadman, Chief Executive, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Dr Mark Fishpool, Director, Middlesbrough Environment City

Steven Donagain, Chief Executive, Hill Holt Wood

Frances Cattanach, Chief Executive, North Wales Wildlife Trust

Jamie Agombar, Executive Director, Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK)

Henry Greenwood, Founder and Managing Director, Green Schools Project

Ian Barrett, Chief Executive, Avon Wildlife Trust

Dr Jim Bradley, Partnership Manager, Belfast Hills

Helen Lawrenson, Centre Director, Falkland Stewardship Trust

Helen Stace, Chief Executive, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust

Liz Ballard, Chief Executive, Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust

Sarah Kessell, Chief Executive, The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales

Julian Woolford, Chief Executive, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust

Delia Garratt, Chief Executive, The Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country

Carina Millstone, Executive Director, Feedback

Jeremy Garside, Chief Executive, Tees Valley Wildlife Trust

Charlotte Harris, Chief Executive, Cheshire Wildlife Trust

Roger Mortlock, Chief Executive, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust

Lesley Davies, Chief Executive, Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust

Joe Brindle, Campaigner, Teach the Future

Marnie Rose, Founder and Director of New Programmes, The Garden Classroom

[1] Despite its severity, COVID-19 is not the only emergency that humanity is currently confronting. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), decisions we take in the next 10 years are crucial for avoiding total climate catastrophe. In addition, a majority of UK wild species are in long-term decline and similar declines in wildlife and natural ecosystems are being recorded across the globe. This also puts our species at high risk, since fully functioning natural ecosystems are necessary for all life on earth.

[2] Coronavirus: Impact on young people with mental health needs, Young Minds, Summer 2020

[3] According to a recent report, launched by Child Poverty Action Group, parents’ primary concern when their children go back to schools is their wellbeing (survey to 3,600 parents and carers and 1,300 children and young people).   

Our Bright Future

Our Bright Future is an ambitious and innovative partnership led by The Wildlife Trusts which brings together the youth and environmental sectors. This five year programme funded by the National Lottery Community Fund is formed of 31 projects across the UK. Each project directly helps young people aged 11-24 to gain vital skills and experience and improve their wellbeing. At the same time, they act as catalysts for delivering change for their local environment and community; whilst contributing to a greener economy.

Examples of outdoor learning solutions

Vision England is one of the 31 projects on the Our Bright Future programme, an ambitious and innovative partnership led by The Wildlife Trusts which brings the youth and the environmental sectors together, funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. The Vision England project, run by Sense and Field Studies Council, aims to develop independent living and social skills to combat isolation. The natural environment, progressive residential weekends and outdoor challenges are used to overcome barriers and build the resilience of young people who are blind and visually impaired.

MyPlace is an innovative ecotherapy project delivered by The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside in partnership with the Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust. Part of the Our Bright Future programme, the project reaches out to young people experiencing mental health issues, offering regular ecotherapy-based activities that enable young people to develop new skills and increase their self-esteem, building resilience and self-confidence while also improving environments in local communities. A total of 700 individuals have benefitted from MyPlace so far, with 95 per cent of people reporting feeling benefits in just six weeks.

Evidence on the impact of outdoor learning on children’s attainment, resilience and wellbeing. 

More time spent learning in and about nature has multiple benefits for children, including improved educational attainment, resilience and overall wellbeing, as shown by several recent research projects.

There is increasingly strong evidence that experiences in nature can boost academic learning, including in subject areas unrelated to the outdoor context.

Further, the benefits of time spent outdoors in terms of health and wellbeing, stress reduction, improved mental health and confidence of young people were reported; all of which are known to support academic attainment.

The mid-term evaluation of the Our Bright Future programme has shown that being outside engaging with nature is a contributing factor from programme activities which have improved young people’s personal development, in particular for disadvantaged young people. Evidence from a sample of participants indicates that participation has led to an increase in some participants’ self-confidence, wellbeing and mental health, as well as improvements in attitude and motivation to learn. A small sample of second-hand evidence documenting the views of teachers suggests that at school and in college, teachers have also witnessed marked improvements in some young people’s behaviour, social interactions, anxiety levels and emotional self-control as a result of participation in outdoor project activities.

Time spent outdoors and learning about nature has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, stress and behavioural issues. Natural England commissioned a four-year project where children from 125 schools had regular outdoor lessons. The findings from the project shows 90 per cent of pupils said learning outdoors makes them feel happier and healthier. Good mental health of teachers is also important for the education system; the same research shows 79 per cent of teachers reported positive impacts on their teaching practice, and 72 per cent reported their own improved health and wellbeing.  Additionally, 85 per cent of schools saw a positive impact on pupils’ behaviour.

As well as significantly improving mental health, being outdoors considerably improves children’s physical health. Studies have shown that increasing time spent outdoors reduces children’s infectious diseases (colds, sore throats etc.) by up to 80 per cent. 

451 children (mostly 8-9 years of age) in 12 areas across England took part by completing surveys before and after they participated in outdoor activities. Additionally, teachers, Wildlife Trust educators and 199 of the children were also observed by the UCL research team and interviewed about their experiences. Overall, the research revealed that children’s wellbeing increased after they had spent time connecting with nature: the children showed an increase in their personal wellbeing and health over time, and they showed an increase in nature connection, pro-environmental values and demonstrated high levels of enjoyment.

References

Christie B. and Higgins P., The Educational Outcomes of Learning for Sustainability: A Brief Review of Literature, January 2020

Hudson H., Smith M., White O., Vittle K., Haswell-Walls F., Cotton I., Our Bright Future, Mid-term evaluation, June 2019

Natural England, Natural Connections Demonstration Project, 2012-2016: Final Report, 2016

Prisk, Cath and Dr Harry Cusworth, Muddy Hands, 2019

Sheldrake R., Amos R., J. Reiss M., (UCL Institute of Education), Children and Nature, A Research Evaluation for The Wildlife Trusts, 2019