Some years ago I was running an event with a large crèche with over 160 children aged 0 – 17. Ten minutes after having finished an eleven hour set up, the organiser arrived to inform that there had been an outbreak of Norovirus in the hotel we were in and we took the decision to change location.
This was done over night. Add to this some staffing issues, accommodation and travel mix ups and a disagreement over an invoice, and I was feeling exhausted and pretty low!
I was sitting on the beach the following day, watching a group of our children enjoying the activities run by my staff, when a child came up and asked if I’d like to walk with them down to the sea. I agreed. We threw pebbles into the sea and watched them skim, we built a sandcastle and began on a moat. By now the other children had joined our endeavour and the little game became a massive co-ordinated project with everyone co-operating towards an end goal.
After this, I felt refreshed, at peace and strangely invigorated.
A 2017 NHS survey showed that 1 in 8 (13%) children aged between 5 and 19, in England and Wales, had at least one mental health disorder.
Over the past 18 months of the pandemic, this has increased significantly with CAMS and other children’s services becoming extremely overstretched.
So what can be done about this impending mental health crisis? One possible solution is all around us, and it lies in the natural world.
Anecdotally, we know how much better a walk in nature can make us feel. When we’re stressed or anxious, a simple walk through the woods, fields or park can calm our nervous system allowing us to think more clearly.
Spending time in nature is scientifically proven to reduce both physical and mental stress.
According to researcher, David Strayer, from the University of Utah, being in nature on a regular basis can also help to increase our attention capacity, creativity, and our ability to connect with other people. Time away from technology, and without the need for our brains to multi-task, gives the prefrontal cortex time to recover leading to greater creativity and wellbeing.
Evidence suggests that after spending time in nature people are able to perform better in memory tasks due to increased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain whose deactivation is affiliated with depression and anxiety.
So if we know that being outdoors is good for our brains, our sense of wellbeing and creativity, shouldn’t it be more integrated into the way that we learn from a young age?
Away from the, often rigid, structure of a classroom, children can communicate freely with one another, developing their language and social skills in a way that they wouldn’t naturally in a school setting. It is, therefore, common for children to be more tolerant and polite to each other during outdoor learning, more readily sharing and helping each other than in traditional classroom environments.
Learning occurs everywhere – not just in a classroom with pen and paper. Learning from situations and places that children encounter in a natural environment is a different type of learning, not only in terms of what children learn but how they learn it.
Physical learning through touch, action and movement, is a completely different learning style than the auditory or verbal learning styles experienced in the classroom. Physical learning suits some children better and allows them to absorb information that they may find more difficult if communicated to them in an academic way.
Risk is an important part of development. If we tell children that being outside in nature, and in unfamiliar environments, is dangerous and too challenging, then we don’t give them the chance to challenge themselves, learn and grow. Encountering and dealing with unfamiliar challenges is a key part of teaching children to be resilient, determined and to see things through.
This goes hand in hand with number 3. By learning new things and overcoming challenges in new environments, we can help children to develop self-confidence and self-belief.
Studies have shown that spending time in nature improves self-esteem in the short and long term.
Physical activity in a natural outdoor environment is linked to a whole host of positive health benefits including; an increase in vitamin D levels, improved physical health through more exercise, and improving mental health and happiness levels.
Outdoor play has also been associated with a lower BMI in pre-school children and therefore could be an effective tool in tackling childhood obesity.
According to Wells and Evans (2003), 'green plants and vistas reduce stress among highly stressed children'. And the greener, the better - learning environments with a greater number of plants, greener views, demonstrated a lower level of stress.
We are living in a time where protecting and valuing our natural world and environment has never been more important.
Humans have natural biophilic tendencies, which means we have an innate desire to seek connection with nature. If we are deprived of this, negative health and psychological outcomes can follow. Allowing children to connect with nature, and become familiar with it, from a young age is one of the biggest steps we can take to raise children who are not only respectful of nature but are motivated to protect our natural world.
According to the Natural Connections project, England’s largest outdoor learning project, the majority of children thought that they learned better and achieved more when learning outside. A huge 92 per cent of pupils involved in the project said they enjoyed their lessons more when outdoors, whilst 90 per cent feeling happier and healthier as a result. The project also found that outdoor teaching can help to motivate teachers, with 79 per cent reporting positive impacts on their teaching practice.
Alongside all of the physical and mental health benefits already mentioned, can outdoor learning actually help children to learn better?
A 2008 study found that children with ADHD scored higher on a test of concentration after a walk in nature, whilst other research has shown that people experience a significant increase in memory span after the nature walk relative to the urban walk.
One study found that a group of children who attended an outdoor school improved their test results by 27%.
Whilst there is an increasing focus and recognition of the benefits of learning outdoors, it is still yet to be widely adopted in our education system. However, as parents, carers or childcare practitioners, we can all do out best to integrate outdoor learning into the way that we teach and interact with the children in our care.
At Nipperbout, we try our best to include outdoor play and learning in our creches at events and conferences, as we recognise the benefits it has to their short-term and long-term wellbeing.
As a parent watching your child play and explore in nature is hugely rewarding and even if they’re not being ‘taught’ anything at all, they’re probably learning a lot more than you think.