Green action connects children to natural world

Gabriella Józwiak
Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Young people add new skills and build their confidence by learning more about the environment and becoming ‘green influencers’ in their communities.

‘Green influencers’ put together local environmental youth social action projects. Picture: Green Synergy
‘Green influencers’ put together local environmental youth social action projects. Picture: Green Synergy


Green Influencers Scheme


To encourage young people to develop a meaningful and lasting connection with nature and contribute to their local community through environmental action


The Ernest Cook Trust pledged £1.5m, which was match-funded by the #iwill Fund, adding up to a £3m investment over three years. The #iwill Fund is supported by a £66m investment from The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport


The Ernest Cook Trust offers children and young people outdoor learning activities. Staff saw young people completing its programmes were developing a connection with nature and were keen to build on that. In 2019 it applied for funding from the #iwill Fund, which works to increase young people’s involvements in social action, with the aim of creating a project focused on the environment.

The trust planned to launch the scheme in June 2020 but this was scaled back to an online pilot due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Five organisations took part between July and December 2020. In January 2021, it officially launched the scheme with 36 registered charities across England. It ran until July 2023.


The scheme provided each charity with funding to hire a “green mentor” – a youth worker with experience of delivering climate or environmental education – to lead the scheme in their area. Participating charities included Action for Conservation in London, Manchester and Bristol, Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust and children and families charity Child Dynamix in Hull.

The trust tasked green mentors with reaching out to local schools and youth groups to recruit a total of 5,000 young people aged 10 to 14, who wanted to become “green influencers” and research, design and implement an environmental youth social action project within their community. “Essentially, the mentors asked them what they were interested in, what they cared about, and what mattered to them and their communities,” explains trust programme manager Robyn Riddoch.

Mentors specifically targeted under-served communities and schools with high numbers of children eligible for free school meals and pupil premium funding. The way mentors engaged young people differed across the country. Just under half – 47 per cent – of projects worked with schools. In some cases, they worked with existing school nature groups. At other schools teachers identified pupils or classes that might benefit from taking part. Other green influencers included young refugees and asylum seekers, cancer patients and victims of domestic abuse.

Riddoch oversaw the network of green mentors, providing resources and training, as the cohort had a wide variety of skills. For example, The Ernest Cook Trust offered climate communication training, including how to talk to young people about the science behind climate change and explain it in a “non-scary and hopeful way”.

The trust did not impose restrictions or timelines on the mentors, or expectations for how often they should meet their group. This flexibility allowed them to meet the needs of different groups and to be as youth-led as possible, says Riddoch. The approach resulted in a wide range of projects. For example, at Gosforth East Middle School in Newcastle-on-Tyne, pupils built an eco-classroom using bricks made of plastic bottles filled with single-use plastic. In Derbyshire, the local Wildlife Trust’s young rangers worked with a theatre group to create an animated film about saving energy.

Riddoch says the first job of the mentors was to gain young people’s trust and encourage them to speak openly about their interests. “A couple of the mentors found it really useful to actually not start talking about the environment at all,” she says. “In the end everything connects back to it anyway.”

One example was a group of young men who began the project saying they did not care about the environment, only sport. The green mentor explained how footballs are produced using plastic, which can have a negative environmental impact. “Now those boys are looking into making their own footballs out of biodegradable materials, like pineapple leather,” says Riddoch. “You have to start where they’re at and then you can build on the educational side.”

Once mentors began working with a group they could apply to The Ernest Cook Trust for an initial pot of funding worth £360 to purchase equipment and resources. After a group had developed their idea further, the trust offered a second grant of up to £5,000 to help them realise their ambition. A youth advisory board, made up of eight young people, reviewed applications for this second-tier funding and recommended to the trust’s trustees who should receive it.

The trust organised an annual in-person conference throughout the scheme to allow mentors and influencers to share experiences. This year young people organised the event with Riddoch. All workshops and speakers were aged under 25. “That was really a chance for young people to say: ‘If you’re going talk to us about these issues, or work with us on these things, this is how it works for us’,” she says.


By the end of June 2023, the scheme had exceeded its target and worked with 6,440 young people. Green mentors had met with their groups a total of 3,256 times and the trust says activities reached 32,300 members of the young people’s communities.

An evaluation by Wavehill Social and Economic Research found that as of August 2022, around a third of projects were in the 10 per cent most deprived communities in England. Of the 4,240 green influencers involved in the scheme at that point, 77 per cent said they planned to continue taking part in social action projects.

Most green influencers – 91 per cent – felt others had benefited from their projects. Benefits included having fun, learning new skills and improvements to the local environment. Green influencers gained new skills and confidence. According to the evaluation, 68 per cent improved their teamwork skills, 62 per cent improved communication skills while just more than half benefited from increased confidence and self-esteem.

Crucially, the evaluation found taking part in the scheme had a significant impact on young people’s connection with nature and their overall wellbeing.


The funding for the scheme has ended. But Riddoch says the trust saw huge benefits in youth-led projects and in appointing a youth advisory board. It is considering other ways to continue working with young people around decision-making, social action and youth empowerment. “Hopefully this will be a building block for a successor to Green Influencers,” says Riddoch.

Young green group learns the benefits of teamwork

Volunteer social action leader Lisa Harris (pictured) became a green mentor on the pilot stage of the scheme. Her employer, East Riding Voluntary Action Services (ERVAS), applied for funding to manage six green influencer groups each year.

One of Harris’s groups came about when the University of Hull asked ERVAS to find young people to map the location and size of hedgerow gaps in East Yorkshire using an app they had developed.

Using her contacts in local youth services, Harris recruited seven young people ranging in age from nine to a university student in her early 20s. They became the HedgeHunters. “At first we met on Zoom weekly – which wasn’t ideal – to talk about what we wanted to do,” says Harris. “Later we went to a local farm to trial the app and map the gaps in hedgerows, which was a great learning experience.”

Inspired by the environmental impact of hedgerows, the group decided to produce a digital magazine. It described the incredible biodiversity hedgerows support across the seasons including the animals that inhabit them. The young people interviewed professionals about hedgerows and the magazine also included recipes and games.

“They came up with a hedgehog character called Hunter and a story about creatures that need to survive in hedgerows,” says Harris. “Then they had an idea to do a series of books.”

The group successfully applied for £5,000 funding from the trust. As a result, The Mystery of the Giant Claw – featuring Hunter – was published in June 2023. It is available on Amazon and the group are distributing free copies to every school in East Riding.

Harris says the group grew in confidence and benefited from working as a team, particularly after Covid-19. “They all had different skills but worked so well together,” she adds.

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