Oasis: At Streatham Wells Primary School the outdoors is considered to be an extension of the classroom and an integral part of the children’s provision (image: supplied)
We have long understood the importance of reconnecting people with nature and as we emerge from the pandemic educators are adopting this practice with renewed vigour.
Until recently research in this field was relatively weak. However there are now numerous studies which point to the benefits for human health and wellbeing of spending time in nature (Hartig et al, 2001; Howell et al, 2011; Mayer et al, 2009) and the links to pro-environmental behaviour (Frantz & Mayer, 2014).
The People and Nature survey by Natural England (2022) found that 85% of children agree that being in nature made them very happy.
Another study, meanwhile, focused on more than 450 primary school children and the effects of outdoor educational activities on their wellbeing, finding that children’s wellbeing increased after they had spent time connecting with nature. The children showed an increase in their personal wellbeing and health over time, an increase in nature connection, and high levels of enjoyment. They also felt their experiences helped their school work and reported feeling more confident (Sheldrake et al, 2019).
Despite this, children’s contact with the natural world is in decline (Charles & Wheeler, 2012) and according to recent research from the RSPB, four out of five UK children are not “connected to nature” (RSPB, 2013).
Worryingly, the Office for National Statistics (2020) says that one in eight households do not have access to a garden or shared outdoor space in the UK, rising to one in five in urban areas.
So what is the cost and why should we be concerned? Well, apart from the numerous benefits to children’s social and emotional wellbeing, if children continue to be disconnected from nature and are not taught the value of conservation, there is good evidence to suggest the natural world will further diminish (Miller, 2005).
Additionally, children who spend less time in nature suffer in their health and wellbeing and miss out on opportunities to develop physically and mentally (Fjørtoft, 2001).
Streatham Wells Primary School
Streatham Wells is a small but mighty single-form entry school in the London Borough of Lambeth and one of eight schools within the Charter Schools Educational Trust, which prides itself on its commitment to fostering pupils’ personal development.
Often described as a village school in the middle of city, the setting is tucked away in an urban oasis, with lush green surroundings that include a full-size football pitch, netball courts and a prized school garden.
Headteacher Sarah Wordlaw explained: “We consider the outdoor to be an extension of the classroom and an integral part of the children’s provision. We grow, harvest, cook, taste, sell and share food which is then used to feed the community. It teaches children respect for nature, citizenship and love. Pupils are encouraged to consider: What is our place in the world?”
The school takes part in a wide range of initiatives designed to enrich pupils’ experiences of nature and develop their knowledge about the environment.
Green fingers: Pupils from Streatham Wells throw themselves into growing fresh fruit and vegetables in their school's polytunnel and garden (images: Supplied)
For example pupils across the school are currently taking part in the Young Marketeers Project, which brings together children from local primary schools to produce and market their own fresh fruit and vegetables. Along the way pupils learn about food surplus and, once the fruit and vegetables have been picked, engage their enterprise skills to sell their produce at a local market.
Pupils have thoroughly enjoyed gardening in the polytunnel. They have undertaken market trader training and visited London’s famous Borough Market to taste local produce. They will also take part in a gardening “health check” to ensure their produce is in prime condition, ready for sale.
Crucially, all proceeds from the Young Marketeers sales go to a local food charity, which is dedicated to reducing food waste and redistributing food to people in need.
Access to green space – a question of equality
Many pupils do not have their own garden or regular access to green spaces. Natural England’s research (2022) confirms that many people were not able to access public natural spaces during Covid-19 and so private gardens became a main source of nature for many.
However, Natural England also warns us that nearly three times as many adults living in poverty don’t have access to any shared or private outdoor space – 16% compared to only 6% of adults living in households with an income above £50,000 a year.
The Fields in Trust Green Space Index, meanwhile, shows that 2.8 million UK people are not living within a 10-minute walk of green space.
Socio-economic status is related to access to natural spaces. You are less likely to have visited a natural space in last 14 days if you are living in an area of high deprivation, have a low income, have a low level of education, or are not working (Natural England, 2022).
If you are of global majority heritage and live in the UK, you are also significantly more likely to live in an urban area. Indeed, the ONS (2020) found that black people are nearly four times as likely as white people to have no access to outdoor space at home, whether it be a private or shared garden, a patio or a balcony (37% compared with 10%).
Natural England also found that 44% of White people had spent time in nature in the last week, compared to 26% of Asian people and 26% of black people (2019; see also Collier, 2019).
So as you can see, access to green space has become a clear issue if we are to level the playing field for disadvantaged groups.
Equality at Streatham Wells
The team at Streatham Wells are brilliant advocates of equality, diversity and inclusion. Ms Wordlaw – who is also the author of Time to Shake up the Primary Curriculum – explained: “We have developed a curriculum which allows space for critical thinking, a curriculum which is actively anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, and anti-albeist. Pupils are able to confidently talk about their rights on a range of issues, using different approaches.
They are able to formulate a response and give evidence to support their views.”
The leadership team is clear that equity of provision must be extended to the most vulnerable pupils, including those with SEN and neurodiverse pupils.
Leaders place a high premium on community engagement, too, with community celebrations such as Disability Awareness Day as well as bespoke family newsletters on how to support children who are neurodiverse.
Ms Wordlaw continued: “We traditionally associate neurodiveristy with pupils in receipt of an Education, Health and Care Plan, when in reality the spectrum of need is much broader. When we also consider intersectionality, we begin to appreciate we are part of a much more diverse community that perhaps we originally thought.”
As part of this commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, Streatham Wells’ outdoor learning provision plays a key role.
A connection with nature is best started in childhood and ideally becomes a shared expectation. There is overwhelming evidence which points to the positive benefits of developing this practice in school settings (Fjørtoft, 2001; Frantz & Mayer, 2014; Sheldrake et al, 2019).
So rather than frame nature as a resource and place for occasional outdoor learning, there is a need for a more embedded and nuanced approach to ensure greater and more consistent connection to nature.
The research suggests that we should promote contact with nature that highlights the enjoyment and wonder of it, while also recognising our place within the natural world. This will then build empathy and a sense of responsibility (Cheng & Monroe, 2012).
Developing equity of provision through the lens of intersectionality, enables all groups of pupils to enjoy green spaces and access a rich curriculum.
When equality and equity are prioritised, pupils leave primary school well prepared for the next stage in their school career but, more importantly, well prepared for life beyond the school gates.
Laura McPhee is headteacher at Loughborough Primary School in Lambeth. She is a a facilitator for the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) on behalf of the London South Teaching School Hub. She is also board member for the Virtual School Management Board, executive committee member of the Lambeth Safer Children Partnership and guest lecturer at London South Bank University. Find her previous articles and podcast appearances for Headteacher Update via www.headteacher-update.com/authors/laura-mcphee
Further reading & resources
- Charles & Wheeler: Children and nature worldwide: An exploration of children’s experiences of the outdoors and nature with associated risks and benefits, Children & Nature Network, 2012.
- Cheng & Monroe: Connection to nature: Children’s affective attitude toward nature, Environment and Behavior (44,1), 2012.
- Collier: Black absence in green spaces, Ecologist, 2019: https://tinyurl.com/42hnpcbv
- Fields in Trust: Green Space Index: fieldsintrust.org/green-space-index
- Fjørtoft: The natural environment as a playground for children: The impact of outdoor play activities in pre-primary school children, Early Childhood Education Journal (29),
- Frantz & Mayer: The importance of connection to nature in assessing environmental education programs, Studies in Educational Evaluation (41), 2014.
- Hartig, Kaiser & Bowler: Psychological restoration in nature as a positive motivation for ecological behavior, Environment and Behavior (33), 2001.
- Howell et al: Nature connectedness: Associations with wellbeing and mindfulness, Personality and Individual Differences (51, 2), 2011.
- Mayer et al: Why is nature beneficial? The role of connectedness to nature, Environment and Behavior (41,5), 2009.
- Miller: Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience, Trends in Ecology and Evolution (20,8), 2005.
- Natural England: Visits to the natural environment, 2019: https://tinyurl.com/2p9uw6rx
- Natural England: The People and Nature Survey: The Children’s People and Nature Survey for England: 2021 update, 2022: http://bit.ly/3Izxgux
- ONS: One in eight British households has no garden, 2020: https://tinyurl.com/5n6mzmsp
- RSPB: Connecting with nature: Finding out how connected to nature the UK’s children are, 2013: https://tinyurl.com/zpmpmdsx
- Sheldrake, Amos & Reiss: Children and nature: A research evaluation for The Wildlife Trusts, 2019: http://bit.ly/3xaL9Je