Steve Ashton, People and Wildlife Manager at the Tees Valley Wildlife Trust, explores an innovative project at the Hardwick Dene Nature Reserve in Stockton on Tees.

Encouraging teenagers to get involved in environmental projects can be difficult but the Tees Valley Wildlife Trust received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s (HLF) ‘Young Roots’ scheme for an innovative project, based in Hardwick Dene Nature Reserve in Stockton on Tees, that is trying to do this. The project involved pupils from 3 local schools visiting the Dene to learn about the wealth of wildlife that can be found in this urban reserve. They then worked with a project officer on a series of environmental improvements including improving disabled access, litter picking, painting sculptures and planting reeds. They were tasked to produce an interpretative piece specifically aimed at their age group. At the same time, the pupils were working towards a recognised qualification: the John Muir Award.
As part of the award pupils had to “Discover a Wild Place, Conserve and Take Responsibility”, “Explore its Wildness” and “Share the Experiences”. For some it was the first time on the nature reserve and they began to appreciate how special it was; for others who knew the site, it meant they could take some responsibility for it. As part of communicating what they did, the pupils produced a scrap-book with lots of pictures, as well as a log-book to record their progress.

To communicate their work to members of the community, the pupils were given a series of options. Abbey Hill Special School used their visits and learning about the reserve to produce a young person’s guide in leaflet form. 1000 leaflets have been produced and distributed to school pupils and the local community. North Shore Academy produced their own web pages which can be found here.
They also produced a QR code nature trail around the site. The final school, Bishopsgarth School, produced an interpretation board for one of the entrances to the reserve.

Celebration events were held including Abbey Hill School, who had a slide-show of the work they had done, whilst Bishopsgarth had a full year assembly with a presentation by the pupils including photographs and video footage. North Shore had a special afternoon assembly with invited guests including the head teacher.

An evaluation took place on site and at each of the schools, some of the findings are outlined below and the full report can be found at

Qualitative and quantitative surveys and interviews were conducted with 29 pupils over 3 days. In terms of the data collected from pupils and teachers, the results were incredibly positive, demonstrating through surveys and interviews the significant differences this project has had on participants, their natural environments and their communities – differences that would be highly unlikely to have occurred without this project. The survey’s main findings included:

  • 25 pupils (86%) reported on a scale of 1-5 that the project had helped them to be kinder to the environment either ‘a bit’ or ‘a lot’.
  • Several pupils commented that they enjoyed litter picking but found it very upsetting and frustrating to see that people would throw litter in green places. They said they thought that a larger part of the John Muir Award should be about solving this problem in particular through more litter picking and raising awareness.

Showing that the project may have a longer-lasting influence on the pupils, Cristal and Jordan from Bishopsgarth School said,

“I want to go back to Hardwick Dene, and use it as inspiration for my art work”  and

“I want to volunteer for the Wildlife Trust when I am 18”, 

Kathryn Lindop, a teacher from Abbey Hill School said,

“The project enabled quieter students to get involved in more group work, helping them gain social skills, communication and confidence … one student in particular had never got so engaged and communicative with anyone before”. Andrew Clough from Bishopsgarth School said, “Opportunities for both practical learning and learning outdoors are limited in school, this project gave the pupils a chance to do this and it was good for the students to get out more and learn by other methods. The Wildlife Trust’s help and support was invaluable in enabling the activity and provided exactly the right level of structure and freedom for maximum achievement.”

Finally, Amy Carrick, the Trust’s officer who delivered the project, said:

“This project has worked really well. I noticed behavioural and attitude changes as young people became more connected to their local wild space, and taking part in the John Muir Award allowed the pupils to gain a sense of achievement, which really made the project feel like a success.  
Seeing young people getting excited about the activities they were doing and the things they were learning was extremely rewarding. 

Taking part in these activities has had a positive impact on the pupils, the school as a whole and the local community.”

For more information, please contact Steve Ashton at


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.

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