Shropshire leads the way in pioneering ‘Nature Friendly Schools’ scheme

(c) Helena Dolby for Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust

Almost 30,000 school children from disadvantaged areas across the UK are set to enjoy classes in nature this spring in a ground-breaking outdoor learning project spearheaded by The Wildlife Trusts.

Nature Friendly Schools is giving almost 30,000 children across the country opportunities to learn outside the classroom, while supporting their well-being, mental health, and engagement with school.

Shropshire Wildlife Trust was the first organisation in the country to implement this pioneering scheme, which initially involved five schools in the county. Imagine maths next to a wildlife pond, English under the shade of an ancient oak, or science classes through real life experiences in the natural world...

Shropshire Wildlife Trust’s Ellie Leach says: “There’s been sweat, tears, a global pandemic and lots of muddy puddles, but our schools in Shropshire have championed outdoor learning every step of the way. This is not just about large scale outdoor activities, this is showing our children how to manage their own health and wellbeing by connecting with nature. Five minutes here, a quick lesson there, makes all the difference and lays the foundations for active learning, academic resilience and healthy young people who want to learn about and protect our precious natural world.”

Stephanie Dowley, Headteacher at John Randall Primary in Telford, says,Nature Friendly Schools has been transformative for our pupils and our school. Every class now spends at least an hour learning outside each day in our forest school area, which is brilliant for the children. Their senses come alive, encouraging creativity and confidence. After the year children have had – much of the time being stuck at home and away from their peers – learning and playing together in nature isn’t just helpful – it’s essential.”

School staff have, grasped the ethos with both hands and put themselves out of their comfort zones.  As one of them commented: “I would never have done this before – but now I wish we could do this every day!” With the help of the Nature Friendly Schools scheme it’s an opportunity now being embraced by many more teachers and children.

Now needed more than ever, the project, funded by Defra and the Department for Education - and supported by Natural England, is increasing its reach this year. Nature Friendly Schools aims to work with more than 100 schools – in areas of the highest levels of social deprivation – and give almost 30,000 pupils opportunities to learn and play in nature as part of their education recovery. We are delighted that from April we will begin this journey with eight more Shropshire schools and that over the course of this project, we will bring nature connectivity to hundreds of children.  

Despite disruptions to education over the last year, the project has already worked in 90 schools UK-wide, enabling 16,000 pupils to benefit from learning in nature, training 500 teachers in outdoor learning and supporting pupil’s mental health – and transforming 30 school grounds.

Through expert training, Nature Friendly Schools empowers teachers to deliver outdoor classes independently, helping them overcome barriers that made it challenging to head out into nature before. This includes making the most of limited outside space, managing behaviour outdoors, and helping teachers measure learning outside of a conventional classroom. Nature Friendly Schools also rewilds school grounds, creating outdoor classrooms and greener, more natural spaces around school buildings.

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, says: “Learning in nature boosts children’s well-being, confidence, and behaviour, and should be a fundamental part of a child’s experience in education. We’re delighted at the success of the project so far. In spite of its proven success, the Nature Friendly Schools initiative is not guaranteed to see out its final year. We believe the need for this project has never been greater and it is vital it continues so we can give more children opportunities to learn, play and get creative in wild, green spaces.”

The project was initially planned to run over four years, benefitting over 100,000 primary and secondary ages pupils. With funding not guaranteed for the final year, up to 46,000 pupils are expected to take part.

Research from The Wildlife Trusts and UCL shows that spending time in nature has a hugely positive impact on children’s health and well-being. Their Nature Nurtures Children study revealed the educational, social and wellbeing benefits of outdoor learning. After taking part in Wildlife Trust-led activities:

79 % felt that their experience could help schoolwork
81 % said they had better relationships with teachers
84 % felt capable of doing new things when they tried
79 % reported better relationships with classmates

Nature Friendly Schools brings together a unique partnership which includes: 

•    The Wildlife Trusts – are a leading provider of outdoor nature education 
•    YoungMinds – leading the movement to make sure every young person gets the mental health support they need, when they need it, no matter what.
•    Groundwork – transforming young lives in the most disadvantaged communities
•    Sensory Trust – experts in ensuring children with special needs enjoy access to nature
•    Field Studies Council – inspires environmental education through residential courses

Deirdre Kehoe, Director of Training and Services at YoungMinds says, “We’re proud to be part of the Nature Friendly Schools partnership, a vital project giving children and young people outdoor learning opportunities. We know that many children and young people have struggled with their mental health as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and that those who were already impacted by inequalities are likely to be most affected. Now more than ever, they need the space to process what they have been through in an environment that is supportive for their mental health as well as their learning.”

The Wildlife Trusts host their next Wild LIVE event on 31st March. The latest instalment of the online discussion series will explore whether the education system is equipped to help tackle the nature and climate crises. To find out more click here.

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Nature Friendly Schools partners and funders