Addressing inequalities via outdoor and nature-based learning

Written by: Dr Alexia Barrable | Published:
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Nothing sums up inequality in the UK as the extent to which pupils have access to green spaces and nature. Dr Alexia Barrable says one way to address disadvantage is via nature-based learning

Most of us are aware of the very high level of income inequality in the UK – one of the highest among developed countries (Equality Trust, 2022). Yet there is another type of inequality that is worth acknowledging, one which can have an impact on our physical and psychological health.

Regular access to natural spaces has been shown again and again to have a wide range of benefits. In as little as 120 minutes per week we can see a significant improvement to our health and wellbeing, according to a large 2019 study (White et al, 2019). This can come in several short sessions, say daily for 15 to 20 minutes, or a longer session once a week. Moreover, spending time in natural spaces has been shown to induce the relaxation response – reducing heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension, and lessening the production of stress hormones. This in turn can have a positive effect on our immune response as well as our mood and wellbeing.

For children, the effects are multiplied and can impact long-term development. Children who grow up in greener neighbourhoods seem to have a healthier weight, more physical activity in their everyday life, better behaviour and even higher IQ (Bijnens et al, 2020). Neighbourhood greenery has been found to produce a buffering effect for childhood stress too.

Put quite simply, children growing up in spaces with more greenery – tree cover, parks and other green spaces – have better developmental outcomes across a range of domains.

And yet – nature access in the UK is incredibly unequal, as can be seen through data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Let’s consider the fact that one in eight British households has no access to a private green space at home. The distribution is unequal in terms of ethnicity too, with those who don’t have access more likely to be members of an ethnic minority.

More specifically in England, a BAME person is four times as likely to not have access to any private outdoor spaces, which includes not just gardens, but also covered patios and balconies.

The inequality is also clustered in different areas, for example you are less likely to have access to a garden if you live in London, where more than one in five households have no private outdoor space. To add to all this, even access to public green and blue spaces, such as parks or beaches, is limited for ethnic minority groups.

Although the UK has a relatively high access to public green spaces, especially when we include playing fields and playgrounds, these tend to be more accessible to those who already have access to their own private garden. Moreover, accessing wilder natural spaces most often requires a private vehicle – making regular trips to national parks a luxury few can afford.

What all children do have access to, however, is school. And by bringing nature into schools (or taking our children out to nature during school time) we can address some of the inequalities.

As teachers and headteachers we have a unique opportunity to enhance our pupils’ health and wellbeing and put them on a positive developmental trajectory through nature-based learning. Here are three easy ways:

Use your local green space: Most schools will have some green space close by, whether it is a park, a field, a village green or, for the lucky ones, a forest. Do an audit of what spaces are available, and the distance to them, and explore the possibilities of taking classes there on a regular basis. Regular risk assessments, but also benefit and opportunity assessments, can help minimise risk and maximise opportunities for all.

Green your school – inside and out: Transforming your playground into a nature-friendly zone can be done slowly and at low cost – this can be something that your parent body can also support and work towards. Bird boxes, bug hotels and raised planters can help bring nature closer. Grants are available several times a year from organisations such as Learning through Landscapes and the Ernest Cook Trust, as well as through smaller regional organisations.

Take part in residential trips: Residential trips in natural environments can be life-changing for those who take part, research has shown again and again, positively impacting participants’ self-esteem and confidence, sense of belonging and wellbeing. Every child should have the chance to take part in such a transformative experience at least once in their life, and this can be facilitated by schools. Look out for grants from organisations such as the Outward Bound Trust and programmes such as the Outdoor Week of Learning from the Ernest Cook Trust, which can offer financial support, as well as teacher education and follow up (see further information).

So, why not give your students the opportunity to learn about themselves through nature and grow key life skills in the wild!

  • Dr Alexia Barrable was born in Greece and had a wild childhood climbing trees and rescuing tortoises. After moving to the UK in her teens, she went on to study at Oxford and Cambridge, where she qualified as a teacher. Alexia has a PhD in psychology in education and conducts research on the human–nature relationship. She is passionate about spreading the word of the benefits of, and opportunities offered by, nature-based learning. She is the author of Independent Thinking on Nature-Based Learning (Independent Thinking Press, 2022). Visit

Headteacher Update Spring Term Edition 2023

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Spring Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in January. A digital edition will also be available soon via

Further information & resources

  • Bijnens et al: Residential green space and child intelligence and behavior across urban, suburban, and rural areas in Belgium: A longitudinal birth cohort study of twins, PLoS medicine (17,8), 2020.
  • Equality Trust: The scale of economic inequality in the UK (accessed December 2022):
  • Ernest Cook Trust:
  • Ernest Cook Trust: Outdoor Week of Learning:
  • Learning through Landscapes:
  • Outward Bound Trust:
  • White et al: Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing, Scientific Reports (9,1), June 2019.

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