IMG_1748.JPGThe Wiltshire Wildlife Trust has a long history of involvement in providing informal and formal environmental education. Over the years, general nature studies have given way to specific activities tailored to help teachers meet attainment targets. We have worked with hundreds of schools; creating wildlife areas, running teacher training sessions, giving presentations to school assemblies and providing both classes and whole schools with programmes of work.

In the Trust’s Strategy for 2015-2020, we set out two aims, the second of which is to inspire and support people to live more sustainably. This is to be achieved by five objectives, one of which is to provide, support and encourage outdoor learning. Environmental education is also a key thread that runs throughout the other four objectives: improving health & wellbeing of people through greater engagement with nature and green exercise; promoting sustainable living; responding positively to the challenge of climate change, and developing nature centres at sites across the County – for example we now offer a diversity of activities that schools can book using the facilities at the Trust’s Langford Lakes and Lower Moor Farm nature reserves.

The current funding of the Trust’s educational work is based on a combination of grants and charges made to schools for services provided. Long term funding for staff to deliver environmental education has always been a challenge for the Trust and volunteers continue to play an important part, particularly in running Watch Clubs for our junior members and supporting staff during school visits to our nature centres.

However, despite the best efforts of all of us involved in environmental education, the Trust has noticed increasing levels of environmental illiteracy and a growing disconnect between people and nature. I was shocked when a work colleague told me how she had to reject lots of nurseries in her search to find one where the children could play outdoors on grass. Amazingly some had replaced the grass with a kind of ‘astro turf’. It exemplifies a sanitised and constrained world that divorces people from nature. At a recent national conference, I heard speaker after speaker describe how children have become virtual prisoners, confined to their homes and school classrooms. Hardly any children now have the freedom to explore, learn about and enjoy the natural world as I did. The result is not just environmental illiteracy, but a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of our young people.

The Trust is doing more work with schools and young people now than ever before, but it often feels like we are just scratching the surface. When head teachers, teachers, school governors, parents and pupils experience first-hand the benefits of outdoor learning, a frequent question we hear is: ‘why is this not included as a regular part of every child’s education?’ It is a good question.

As readers of this journal will be well aware, there are many benefits from allowing young people to learn in a natural environment. Working outdoors with young people, Trust staff frequently witness transformations taking place; a halt in anti-social behaviour, greater team working, increased creativity and concentration, more personal confidence, a greater appetite for learning, as well as the acquisition of new skills and increased environmental awareness and understanding. Sometimes the impact on individuals is almost miraculous.

So why is this not part of every child’s education? Recently we have tried reframing the question and started looking for ways to embed this natural learning into the educational system. As a result, we have identified both the need and the opportunity to set up Nature Schools where we can provide enhanced learning opportunities through the use of outdoor classrooms and long term, regular contact with the natural environment.

Our first tactic has been to look at the plans to build more schools. In Wiltshire and Swindon there are plans to build 80,000 new homes in the next 10 years. Alongside this will be several new schools. We have therefore approached the developers and the local council to promote the need for all new schools to be built as Nature Schools. In addition to meeting government standards for school premises and the codes for sustainable construction, we would like all new schools to be built so that they open onto a nature area as an extension of the formal school grounds rather than have an enclosed playground. There should be an orchard and an area where pupils can learn to grow food. The response from the council and developers has been very positive.

But we want to go further than this. There have been many school nature areas that have fallen into disrepair when a key teacher leaves. What we need is to see a new generation of Nature Schools, where regular close contact with nature is part of the whole ethos and vision of the school, enshrined in the foundation principles and governance arrangements. In our ideal Nature School, wildlife observations will be part of the daily routine and every child will be guaranteed the opportunity to learn outdoors. This could include outdoor physical education (which is better for children’s health and wellbeing than being confined indoors), learning practical skills (such as growing food, using tools and constructing) and artistic skills (using nature as an inspiration to help engage students in their creative development in a natural studio).  One of the barriers to outdoor learning is that few teachers are trained or have the experience of leading classes outdoors, despite the growing evidence showing how this can have a powerful effect on pupils’ health and wellbeing and their academic attainment. Every teacher in our Nature Schools will be trained and qualified to take classes outdoors.

The educational focus of a Nature School will be on creating a social learning community with a clear view of the world and a real sense of place which:

  • Has a growing awareness of its environmental impact (footprint), has a strategy for steadily reducing it, and uses these as a focus for learning
  • Values outdoor, environmental, experiential and exploratory play as ways to learn and engage with real-world issues in authentic settings
  • Is outward-looking, and whose work is not only based in its local context (the environment, society and culture), but which has real links to real communities in other parts of the world
  • Recognises that there is an inter-dependence and shared responsibility for who we are, where we live and what we do, in relation to both social and environmental justice
  • Understands that it can, and should, contribute to maximising learning and gaining skills, and enhancing social cohesion.

It will be important that Nature Schools can demonstrate academic excellence. We are collecting evidence to show [i] that such a Nature School approach allows all children to thrive irrespective of their individual learning style and that pupils can achieve high academic performance; and [ii] that the stimulation provided in an outdoor environment can allow all children to unlock their potential.  Nature supports engagement across the curriculum and helps make learning more relevant, meaningful, enjoyable and accessible for students, and Nature Schools will offer a different sort of balanced curriculum:

  • Providing emotional time and physical space for child-led learning to come alive
  • Giving children the chance to gain both the physical and wellbeing benefits that nature offers such as increased self-esteem and greater resilience to face the challenges of growing up in a fast paced world
  • Placing an emphasis on personal development and not just academic outcomes, as working with children outdoors helps them thrive and learn about themselves

Lessons could include:

  • Creative writing within the school grounds, moving out of the classroom for greater inspiration and ideas
  • Maths in a woodland, measuring and recording heights and circumferences of different plant species, estimating total numbers of plants in an area and using graphs to show results
  • Design and technology lessons using basic tools such as a pole lathe to create a wooden toy
  • Science field studies observing how animals and plants have adapted to their environment

Each Nature School will offer enhanced opportunities for learning and personal development. Part of the ethos of a Nature School is that every child matters and they are supported as they develop:

  • Positive mental attitude, self-motivation and independence
  • Resourcefulness, self-regulation and resilience to challenge and failure
  • Perseverance, self-confidence and communication skills
  • Risk management and outdoor safety
  • Empathy and intrinsic motivation
  • Social and communication skills

With our colleagues in the other Wildlife Trusts we are now exploring how we can turn the vision, ethos and benefits of Nature Schools into a reality in the new landscape of academy trusts and free schools. The challenge is considerable, but the benefits are even greater.

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Dr Gary Mantle MBE is Chief Executive of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.

For more information, please contact garym@wiltshirewildlife.org  This article was first published in NAEE’s Summer 2016 journal (Vol. 112).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.