By Nature Friendly Schools Project Manager, Jenny Teague
The Nature Friendly Schools project is celebrating Outdoor Classroom Day, and what better opportunity to reflect on our first year of delivery and the journey our schools have been on. They have become wilder, more accessible and nature-rich spaces in which pupils have thrived.
90 schools embarked on becoming nature friendly during year one of the ground-breaking project. As Nature Friendly Schools works exclusively in areas of high social disadvantage, we saw first hand what impact the pandemic and protracted isolation from nature had on children who live in areas with little to no access to green space and wildlife. Increased anxiety, a roll-back of basic social and learning skills in addition to feelings of loneliness and confusion were prevalent in pupils when schools were allowed to re-open, and the challenges faced by teachers in the wake of this cannot be underestimated.
At the heart of this project is the belief that all children have the right to regular contact with nature, and that being close to and connecting with nature holds immeasurable benefits for our bodies and our minds. With this in mind, the project set out to work harder than ever to step up to the amplified challenges faced by schools, and to create safe havens for young people (and their teachers), through greening their school spaces and supporting teachers to increase the amount of time being spent learning outside.
Amongst the seemingly endless lockdowns and school closures, the project supported 16,000 children and 500 teachers during the pandemic – greening nearly 80 school grounds, delivering more than 250 hours of continual professional development training and providing outdoor clothing, equipment and learning aids to all 90 schools. We nurtured a love for the outdoors, and thanks to the commitment and sheer determination of our schools, started to see the impacts almost overnight.
Schools told us that children who struggled in a conventional classroom “came alive” when outdoors, and “developed leadership, communication and inter-personal skills they have never shown us before”. They also told us that “all children feel they have achieved something” after outdoor learning, and that “children with very complex needs shine being outside, they have developed in confidence, worked well in groups and taken on responsibilities”.
This is not just children playing outside. Our year one schools have taken nearly every area of the curriculum into their green spaces, from mathematics and English through to history, science, art and music. Children have thrived and experienced joy, awe and wonder by seeing the first tadpoles appear in their ponds, the first vegetables pulled from their allotment beds, but even more tangible is the sense of nature providing a place for emotional literacy, spaces of calm and reflection – essential to children who have suffered the most as a result of the pandemic.
As the project hits its stride with 100 schools in year two, this Outdoor Classroom Day we have a plea, for all schools who may read this. Consider one area of the school day you could take outside each day for one week. We don’t mind if that’s taking the register, a 10-minute round up at the end of a lesson – whatever you can manage. Watch your pupils’ faces, notice them taking in big breaths of fresh air, watch them smile and point out all they can hear, see, smell and touch outside. Even those few, precious moments in nature will refresh them, make them feel energised and excited, and may well set you on your own path to becoming a Nature Friendly School. Have a wonderful Outdoor Learning Day!