LB-Jun11-e1434640068808-300x300Becca Neal, Green Projects Officer at Froglife, writes about the Green Pathways project.

I love my job; I get to be outside most days, I get paid to toast marshmallows and I know for sure that what I do really helps people.  I work for the environmental charity Froglife. We are an amphibian and reptile charity with a strong education department and a focus on hard-to-reach audiences not traditionally engaged in conservation. I run a project called Green Pathways based in Peterborough.

Green Pathways is a project doing practical outdoor activities with young people aged 5-18, funded by BBC Children in Need. The project supports those with extra difficulties in their lives to improve green spaces for wildlife and people, and to learn about and enjoy the environment. We receive referrals from schools, charities and children’s services in Peterborough, Fenland and Northamptonshire, and work in small groups, one-to-one or with families. Students are often referred from pupil referral units, special schools and learning support departments within mainstream where working with us enhances their alternative curriculum.

We aim to increase knowledge of the environment, enjoyment of the outdoors and to develop conservation skills whilst improving confidence, working on social skills and encouraging positive behaviour and thoughts. Benefits are far wider than those we report on and may also include: increased attainment in school, reduced involvement in anti-social behaviour and improved family relationships.

Green Pathways enables children who often struggle in mainstream, to achieve in an informal environment, and provides them with powerful educational experiences. Many of the children we work with deal with multiple disadvantage on a daily basis for example: mental health issues, physical disabilities, confidence issues, behaviour problems or chaotic family lives.

We work in a variety of green spaces such as community gardens, local woodlands, parks and nature reserves and try to connect young people with somewhere they can go back to in their own time. Over several years, Green Pathwayers have: created a radio show, dug successful amphibian breeding ponds, revamped vandalised walls with fantastic wildlife-inspired spray-art murals, conquered their fears of heights or reptiles, learned how to use tools to manage newt habitats, made friends, jumped in puddles, thrown sticks in the woods, eaten fresh vegetables, slept outdoors for the first time and given presentations in front of the Mayor.

In the summer of 2015, we worked with a group from a deprived area of Peterborough. All of the children were in the special care of the school’s family support worker and had severe additional needs. We organised a programme of activities which included: reptile hunting, tree climbing, helping at a local community garden, bird watching and lighting a safe bonfire. Here is the feedback given by the teacher at the end of their sessions, relating to each child (names have been changed):

“Olive’s knowledge of the environment was already impressive but she has added to this through her natural curiosity and interest and by you sharing your own knowledge. Some of the many things she said she had learnt were that a magpie is a crow and there is a snail that lives in the water. Olive’s confidence has grown and she very much enjoyed learning about conservation and generally being outdoors. Olive said that pond dipping and making things were her favourites and her proudest moment was when she held a slowworm.”

“Zach’s behaviour improved whilst at Froglife as he was able to ‘let himself go’ and enjoy being outdoors. This is something he is unable to do so much at home and school. Giving Zach responsibility helped to improve his behaviour. Zach said the sessions were exciting and fun and he is proud that he climbed a tree, held a frog and stroked a slowworm. Zach said that he learnt that a slowworm is a lizard not a snake and that their tails fall off to protect themselves.”

“Ross thinks that Froglife is ‘wicked’. He said that he loved being outside and learning about nature. Ross is proud that he climbed to the top of a tree and stroked a slowworm. Ross has learnt that male and female slowworms are different colours. Ross’s behaviour improved whilst with the Froglife group.”

“Muhammed really enjoyed the freedom of being outdoors. He benefitted from kinaesthetic learning and using his senses to explore the environment. Froglife has had a positive impact on his social skills and resilience. He was proud to have climbed a tree.”

“Hamzah really enjoyed the freedom of being outdoors, as his home life is quite strict. Hamzah’s social skills and confidence have grown immensely and he is now able to contribute more and express himself. Hamzah particularly liked the frog and he is proud of himself for holding one as he found them scary at first. He also enjoyed eating peas, strawberries and herbs, and toasting marshmallows round the fire. Froglife has increased his resilience and the opportunity to try new things in a less controlled environment.”

The final comment from the teacher was quite revealing and shows that being outdoors helps everyone:

“The whole Froglife experience has had a huge impact on this group of children (and the adults accompanying them).”

I was blown away by receiving this feedback because each individual in this group had serious difficulties with communication and so I found it hard to really evaluate the impact of sessions in the usual ways. It did show me though that even when I think I may not have got through to a young person, nature probably has.  Froglife are currently working with environmental education specialists at the University of Hull to improve our evaluation. Our present methods show that what we do helps people, and we want to be able to demonstrate this in the most robust scientific way possible. This will allow us to provide a better service to more young people and leave us leading the way with our best practice.

For more information, click here, and facebook.com/froglife or @froglifers.

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This article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 111).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.