Where Children Naturally Learn

Jo Lewis, from Natural England’s People and Nature Team, discusses how the results of the organisation’s four-year Natural Connections project can help the sector to build on the health and wellbeing benefits of high quality outdoor learning for teachers and pupils and what the next steps are to make the pilot scheme nationwide.

Natural England - Natural Connections Project ()

In the natural environment sector we’re always striving to better connect people with nature so they will care about it and want to help to protect it, and it is recognised that starting early in life is important to foster that care.

However, recent evidence (MENE) tells us that in an average month only 8% of school children (aged 6-15) in England visited the natural environment with their schools. Why so low? Well we know from research undertaken by Kings College London that lack of teacher confidence in taking children outdoors is a big challenge.

Natural Connections was a four-year project designed to help school children – particularly those from disadvantaged areas – to experience the full range of benefits that come from learning in local natural environments, their school grounds and nearby parks, by reducing the barriers teachers face when wanting to take lessons outside.

The project funded by ourselves, DEFRA and Historic England and delivered by Plymouth University, has for the first time provided us with strong evidence that learning in local natural environments has multiple benefits for schools, pupils and teachers.

The Natural Connections project worked with 125 schools in South West England and reached 40,000 pupils and 2,000 teachers during the four years. Working with teachers and local providers of outdoor learning, the project looked at how to embed outdoor learning into everyday school activity, in a sustainable way that connects the local natural environment with not just PE, but other priorities of the school curriculum such as science, maths and English.

90 per cent of children, who were involved in the project, said that they felt happier and healthier when involved in outdoor learning and as result we are now assessing how outdoor learning can impact a pupil’s level of physical activity. The results will be available next year.

Natural Connections - Image One (Natural England)

Teachers also identified a positive impact on a pupil’s learning, and reported greater levels of engagement, better behaviour and improved social skills.

At the end of the project, every school involved reported that outdoor learning had a positive impact for teachers and in particular made a difference to their health and wellbeing, job satisfaction and overall teaching practice.

Natural Connections - Image Two (Natural England)

We will be releasing a practical guide for teachers and senior leaders within schools at the end of September to help them take steps to embed outdoor learning in their own settings. The Transforming Schools through Outdoor Learning report will also provide valuable information for practitioners wishing to understand how best to support schools.

We will now be working with our partners to help share the findings from this project to support and build on the provision of outdoor learning in schools across England. In order to make this happen, we hope to engage government departments such as education and health to find ways to share and replicate what has been achieved in the South West of England. 

Natural Connections - Image Three (Natural England)

So, how can we now practically apply some of the learnings from the Natural Connections project?

The Project has shown that high quality tailored support enables teachers to make frequent use of school grounds and local outdoor spaces to support their everyday teaching. The project suggested a trend that more regular outdoor learning in schools will in turn increase the confidence and skills that teachers have to make trips and visits away from the school.

The trick to achieving this is for practitioners to work with schools to develop a culture that values outdoor learning. The findings of Natural Connections suggest that outdoor learning providers should tailor their services to meet the needs of individual schools in order to develop teachers’ initial confidence, for example by offering Continued Professional Development (CPD).

A locally focused approach to regular outdoor learning is very inexpensive. Schools taking part in Natural Connections spent small amounts on their school grounds and on CPD, and reported that this was extremely good value for money. One Deputy Head Teacher (from a secondary school with 800 pupils) recently told us that their involvement in the project over four years had cost the school less than they spent on tea and coffee!

 So outdoor learning does not need to be seen as an additional ask of schools or as an extra-curricular subject but just as another way to support teaching and learning.  As one of the pupils involved in the project puts it in the project film, “… outside is where children would naturally be and where we naturally learn”.