Climate change and hope: Getting children outside

Written by: Jacqui McDermid & Jo Gordon | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Getting children outside to enjoy nature and outdoor learning could be a key element in the fight against climate change, say Jacqui McDermid and Jo Gordon from the Natural Thinkers initiative


If COP26 left you better informed but downcast about our chances of meeting the climate challenge, then connecting children with nature can be a source of hope.

It is true – we have a battle ahead. The impact of climate change on children and young people’s future health has been declared an emergency by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH, 2020).

RCPCH called on the government and world leaders to act immediately to lessen the impact of air pollution on children’s health. It argued that reducing the emissions associated with climate change warrants rapid attention to prevent the lifelong implications they have on an individual’s health.

The statement read: “The RCPCH recognises that climate change is an existential threat to the health and wellbeing of children and young people. In October 2020, we joined national health and academic alliances to declare climate change an emergency requiring accelerated collaborative actions. This position statement summarises our recommendations and activity about mitigation and adaptation against the impact of climate change on children and young people around the world.”

And we should not forget the impact that climate anxiety can have on young people’s mental health too.

The RCPCH adds: “’Children exhibit high levels of concern over climate change and the mental health consequences – including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, phobias, sleep disorders, attachment disorders, and substance abuse – can lead to problems with learning, behaviour and academic performance.’’


Covid impact

The added impetus that COP26 provided to talk about the environment was needed given much of public concern over the last 20 months has been focused on the implications of the pandemic on our health and daily lives.

Covid-19 has brought some benefits for the climate. The constraints of lockdowns meant that emissions were lower in some areas, giving us a welcome break to rising levels of Co2. Lockdowns also highlighted the inequality of people’s access to nature: many children benefited from regular outdoors walks, while others did not.

According to the Office for National Statistics, one in eight households had no access to a garden during coronavirus lockdown with black people nearly four times as likely as white people to have no access to outdoor space at home.
Schools can help with this inequality by providing opportunities for those who can’t access it at home, working with communities to provide access to the green spaces that surround the school.


Reconnecting to nature

So, how does climate change relate to children’s connection to nature? Children need to feel empowered and supported to address the climate crisis at their level, not feel hopeless or anxious. As educators, we can empower children from a very young age by giving them experiences that help them connect to nature. In giving children these experiences they will hopefully appreciate nature more and want to protect it.


The role of schools

Schools can help children interact with their natural environment by letting children experience nature first-hand. Encouraging children to use mindfulness techniques, using their senses to explore the environment, spending time in the moment to see, hear, feel, and smell their surroundings will not only support a greater affinity to nature but also create a sense of wellbeing.

Schools do not need to have lots of green space to do this. They just need to be creative with the spaces they have, making a greener environment by having some hanging baskets to grow strawberries or herbs in, developing vertical growing areas, or using planters to grow fruits and vegetables. Schools need to be committed to bringing nature into all children’s lives.

Many inner-city schools, with outdoor areas that are mainly laid with concrete, have found ways to bring nature in. Besides growing produce, they have brought in wildlife by creating habitats, rewilding unkept outside areas, planting beds or boxes that attract bees, and even keeping ducks or chickens.

These experiences of engaging with wildlife can give children a better understanding of the world and what it has to offer. Opportunities for recycling and reusing materials can be a great introduction to sustainability and the beginning of engagement with our fight against climate change.


Nature as part of the curriculum

The outdoors lends itself to learning experiences around STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. The whole of the primary science programme of study can be taught outside. Nature provides rich opportunities for problem-solving, designing, understanding mathematical concepts and being creative with natural resources.

The experiences and new skills that children can develop from being outdoors will give them the tools they will need to be our future climate warriors.

Like never before, we need children who appreciate nature, know how to care for it, and be motivated to find and design solutions in order to ensure a healthier future for themselves and subsequent generations.


Where can schools get help?

The Natural Thinkers programme has been developed by Lambeth Council and the Lambeth Early Action Partnership – led by the National Children’s Bureau. It started as a programme for very young children in Lambeth, but it has proved so successful it is now being offered across the country for children from birth to 11.

  • Jacqui McDermid and Jo Gordon are from the Natural Thinkers training programme, which is being offered across the country by the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.naturalthinkers.co.uk


Further information & resources

  • Natural Thinkers: More information about how the Natural Thinkers programme supports the EYFS Framework in particular can be found via https://bit.ly/3puYFTN
  • RCPCH: The impact of climate change on global child health – position statement, October 2020: https://bit.ly/3GjH3B2


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