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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Outdoor education – Why schools need a Nature Premium

Dr Sara Collins tells us why the introduction of a Nature Premium would help schools unlock the many wellbeing benefits to be had from spending time in natural surroundings…

Dr Sara Collins
by Dr Sara Collins
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Secondary

As a biologist who regularly works with schools on matters relating to outdoor education, I’ve often seen how young people react when they’re out in nature, and the inspiration it can give them.

You’ll very often see the balance and makeup of classes change. I’ve seen young people break out of their usual cohorts and friendship groups, and demonstrate a willingness to interact and play with peers they haven’t previously spent time with. It can really help them develop their social skills, and generate some hugely positive outcomes.

Inequity of access

These benefits can extend to teachers too. When I go into schools, I’ve sometimes heard teachers tell me at the end of a session, ‘Well, I hadn’t expected to enjoy that.’ I hope that’s partly down to something I’ve done, but it ultimately shows how getting out into the green environment can help you relax, and often see the children you teach in a very different light.

We know from research and interviews carried out by Natural England that spending time in nature can improve young people’s happiness, but that there’s also a significant inequity of access to nature. Those of us involved in the Nature Premium campaign argue that children need to get out into nature more – both to realise the benefits outlined above, but also so that they can develop a better understanding of their place within the wider natural world, and potentially develop an interest in taking the new natural history GCSE, once it’s fully introduced in 2025.

As such, we’re calling for the introduction of a Nature Premium in schools, similar to the existing Sports Premium. A key advantage of having a Nature Premium is that funding would go directly to schools, enabling staff to decide what natural education priorities are best for their children. Above all, it would remove that inequity of access to nature, allowing children from all backgrounds to discover the richness of nature and the chance to explore it further.

Learning opportunities

I’m based in Portsmouth, and at one of the schools I visit there’s no green space at all – but there is a nearby park, and it’s just a 15-minute walk to the seashore. The problem the school has is that it’s under multiple pressures and has to deal with multiple demands on its time.

A Nature Premium would provide that school, and others like it, with the financial capacity to get children into nature; it would almost give them ‘permission’ to do it. We know that many staff are interested in taking more classes into nature, but they lack either the time or financial resources they need.

We’re not suggesting it’s an ‘either/or’ situation – our view is that you can creatively spend time in the natural world, while still delivering fantastic outcomes in writing, mathematics and other areas.

Any lesson you can teach in a classroom, you can teach in nature.

By spending the time in the green environment, students will not only receive a boost to their mental wellbeing, but also be presented with many different learning opportunities, from the behaviours of bees inside their hives, to the natural processes that produce trees.

An important part of the campaign is that we know children develop their own ways of managing their mental wellbeing. If they’re feeling rough, or down, and know that that they can help themselves by spending time outside in a green environment appreciating their natural surroundings, that can be hugely valuable.

Looking and seeing

I’ve previously taken a group into a local Woodland Trust wood, and had a teenager ask me “Is this a real wood?” Many of the students hadn’t actually been in a wood before, so there was initially some concern among them about getting lost. But just being there helped to give them some important skills in how to navigate maintained woodland, the confidence to explore for themselves, and an awareness of how to keep themselves safe.

It’s about getting students used to looking and seeing, so that they start to notice more. And if they can then engage in nature more often, the process can become self- fulfilling.

Dr Sara Collins is deputy chair of the Forest School Association and co-lead of the Nature Premium campaign; for more information, visit naturepremium.org or follow @NaturePremium1

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