Let nature take the strain

Graham Duxbury
Friday, December 18, 2020

As a parent and a governor, and contrary to some national press opinion, I’ve nothing but admiration for the way teachers have kept schools running and pupils learning since September – coping with an endless stream of last minute government guidance changes and meeting the welfare and wellbeing needs of children in the most trying of circumstances.

In our house we’ve been fortunate to make it through to the end of term without any bubbles bursting, but know that next term we’ll face the same uncertainties over how and where our children will be educated, and what this means for their grades and future prospects.

Mass testing and vaccination won’t in the short term alter some of the basic arrangements we’ve got used to – staggered hours, video assemblies and as much time spent outside as possible. This last one has been – and will continue to be - particularly important given trends in wider society. 

We’ve rightly heard a lot about schools stepping in to provide food where families find it hard to get by. Much less celebrated, but equally valuable, is the work being done by teachers to ensure children have access to fresh air and nature, which are also fundamental to our physical and mental wellbeing.

As with so many other social trends, the pandemic has served to highlight and exacerbate the inequalities in our society around who is able to enjoy the restorative benefits nature provides. 

We’ve known for years that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more prone to ‘nature deficit’ than those living in more affluent areas, having less green space to access and visiting it less frequently. We also know that children growing up in black households are four times less likely to have a private garden than their white counterparts. A recent survey of  eight- to 15-year-olds undertaken by Natural England shows that Covid restrictions have deepened this divide. 

Sixty per cent of children said that they have been spending less time outdoors than before, but this figure was much higher for children from BAME backgrounds (71 per cent) and those living in lower income households (73 per cent).

With the ban on residential visits to outdoor education centres not likely to be lifted until at least Easter, making the most of the environment on our doorsteps is clearly crucial. Schools are well used to this approach using outdoor classrooms and forest school sessions, but often need the support of specialist organisations to ensure these experiences are safe and educationally rich. Many of these support organisations will have seen a significant drop in income over the last nine months.

As the long tail of the pandemic drags on we also need to maximise the potential to use outdoor education as a way of addressing the increased mental health needs of pupils, particularly again those from low income families. Building the capacity and confidence of teachers to plug these elements together is the focus of the national Nature Friendly Schools programme and schools can draw on significant support and resources from the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom.

Beyond schools, however, there is a more mixed picture, with a real need and opportunity to embed nature-based activities into the way we provide early years support, youth work and health advice for young people. The evidence is irrefutable that the setting in which these services are provided can make a huge difference to the way young people engage with and benefit from them, but in many cases professionals lack the confidence or support to use the outdoors in an imaginative way. Huge effort and creativity have gone into transferring face to face provision online and in the process tackling the digital divide. We now need to see as much effort focused on building nature and the environment into the way we help young people cope, learn and develop – and think about how we address the nature divide.

In a recent speech on climate change the Prime Minister felt the need to reassure the world that we’re not all ‘tree-hugging, mung-bean munching eco freaks’ (even though many of us wear that badge with pride). However, we are social animals who feel stress if we’re not connected with our communities and connected with nature. For young people this disconnect can be doubly damaging and needs to be prevented.

Graham Duxbury is national chief executive of Groundwork.

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