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4 Mar 2024

Nature connection, outdoor learning and education

In February the Trust signed-on to a policy paper prepared by Wildlife and Countryside LINK (WCL) which supports our position on nature connection, outdoor learning and education.

Group in meadow - Janet Macsween

The policy paper from WCL’s Education and Learning Policy Group is intended to initiate discussions with stakeholders and recommends that schools and education providers in England be required to provide children with regular access to nature and learning outdoors.

“We are calling for a statutory requirement for all education settings in England to provide access to and regular engagement with nature for children” (WCL policy paper

The paper adds detail to why this is needed and how it can be achieved. On how this requirement will be achieved, the paper says:  

  • School grounds should provide safe, high-quality spaces for children to learn and play in nature, alongside providing essential havens and safe spaces for wildlife to thrive; 
  • Schools should receive materials, kit, and equipment required to enable learning outdoors, such as wellington boots and waterproofs;  
  • Lessons across all subjects should include time spent learning outdoors; and 
  • All teachers must be equipped with a minimum standard of knowledge and capability to support children in their exploration of the subject, at each stage of learning.  

“All children should have an equitable opportunity through education to experience and learn about nature and how to protect it. This would act as a key enabler to equipping children with the foundational knowledge and understanding required to understand both the value nature brings to their lives, and to inspire them as environmental leaders and guardians.” (WCL policy paper)

In Scotland, the curriculum has embedded a ‘learning for sustainability’ programme, which means teachers make provision in lesson planning for activities that encourage learning about sustainable ways to live. This learning can be combined with learning outdoors, connecting with nature. In Wales, the new curriculum (into effect September 2023) recognises learning outdoors as equal to the indoor classroom, and outdoor learning as a core teaching method which all schools can engage in. 

We support this call for a statutory requirement in England for access to and engagement with nature within education. It is vital for a number of reasons.

Preparing the next generation 

“The United Kingdom faces a dual climate and ecological crisis, the effects of which will be most keenly felt by the next generation.” (WCL policy paper) 

Access to and connection with nature underpins our ability to value it which in turn drives our desire to stand up for and protect it. The Trust cares deeply about enabling that connection and opening doors for future generations to discover pathways to explore and protect wild places and pursue green and nature-based careers. 

Nature connection in education support children’s wellbeing 

The benefits of engaging with nature in education go far beyond supporting and protecting wild places, it also supports positive health and wellbeing, and improved academic outputs like behaviour, attendance, and attainment.  

“These benefits translate directly into education settings, and the conditions required for children to thrive as motivated, confident learners.” (WCL policy paper)

Wild places for all  

“Making schools the equitable space for nature could be the key driver for levelling up children’s access to nature.” (WCL policy paper) 

Evidence clearly shows that access to nature and wild places is not equal or equitable across society and that even well-meaning voluntary policies do not reach every child in education. A statutory requirement can ensure connection and engagement with nature is embedded into all education, making it an equitable touch point, no matter your background, or barriers you face outside of the education setting. It can also support schools and education centres with the tools, materials, and equipment all children and young people need to access learning outdoors, such as waterproofs and wellington boots.  

Voluntary initiatives already being developed such as the ‘National Education Nature Park’ are encouraging improvements of school grounds to give children and young people the opportunity to take action to improve their environment through increasing its biodiversity; working towards providing essential havens and safe spaces for wildlife to thrive. However, without a statutory requirement, many schools will not have the time, materials, knowledge, or support to make this possible in a fair and equitable way.  

Alongside a Climate Leaders Award being piloted in England the John Muir Award continues to strive to introduce schools with local, accessible wild places such as school grounds, and take steps to conserve and restore their natural processes so they have some ‘wild nearby’ to connect with and be inspired by.  

Building capacity 

“A statutory requirement, bolstered by support for teachers and educators, education settings, and outdoor learning, will genuinely ensure that all children have equal opportunity to nature within education.” (WCL policy paper) 

At this stage the policy paper outlines the direction of travel and hopes to gain support from education providers and to work with them to identify how this can best be achieved. The group aims to understand what teachers and educators need in order to facilitate outdoor learning across the curriculum and ensure a minimum standard of knowledge about nature, biodiversity and climate change. From here we can identify what role environmental organisations like the Trust, who have facilitated more than 25 years of outdoor learning through the John Muir Award, conserving and enhancing wild places accessible to those in education and youth settings, can play in supporting this. 

Final note 

“The future protectors of wild places will need to have more access and experience of nature.” - John Muir Trust member of staff.  

This paper is proposing a way for all children in England to access nature outdoors as part of school life. This is something we support and our work through the John Muir Award continues to offer teachers and youth leaders a structure to introduce children to wild places and discover how to care for them as part of their education.