Outdoor learning: helping to heal our young people

It has long been recognised that outdoor learning can be beneficial for health and wellbeing. NatureScot recently published the evaluation of a large collaborative outdoor learning project – the Learning in Local Greenspace project – which ran between 2015 and 2021. During Green Health Week, we thought it would be timely to explore what impact the project had on the health and wellbeing of those that took part, writes Sue Munro.

Schoolchildren walking on the nature trail at Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The project worked to support and embed outdoor learning in local greenspaces amongst the project schools, in collaboration with local and national partners. We worked with over 115 schools and at least 500 teachers across 12 local authorities to remove or reduce the barriers to outdoor learning. This gave over 6000 learners access to their local greenspace for learning and play.

Outdoor learning can be beneficial for health and wellbeing. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The final year of the project was severely affected by the global pandemic which we know negatively impacted many people’s health and wellbeing. It was also during the midst of the pandemic that the schools’ evaluation of the project was conducted. It was therefore heartening to discover that, despite these unprecedented circumstances, the number of teachers that believed their pupils’ emotional wellbeing was average to excellent had risen from 76.8% pre-project to 84.2% post-project.

This was backed up by many quotes and anecdotes from teachers and pupils during the course of the project.

“My class goes out at least once a week, but we vary the curriculum area … It has helped to raise attainment in my class and pupil’s health and wellbeing.” (Primary School Teacher, West Lothian)

“I don’t feel as stressed when I am out but when I am in class I get stressed.” (Primary pupil, West Dunbartonshire)

Teachers observed that learning outdoors can positively impact behaviour and social interactions which can enhance emotional wellbeing:

“The social element is also very important for our pupils as many of our children have social, emotional and behavioural issues and outdoor learning has had a very positive impact on these pupils, who have demonstrated more self-confidence, less anger and aggression. There have been less absences from some of our more vulnerable children as they know they are joining with our outdoor learning programme.” (Teacher, North Lanarkshire)

The study saw an increase in the number of teachers who believe outdoor learning has positive effects on pupils.

The impacts of the project on physical health were less clear and again were likely to have been negatively impacted by Covid-19. The number of teachers that believed their pupils’ physical health was average to excellent fell over the course of the project (72.6% pre-project and 65.8% post-project). However, there was anecdotal evidence that teachers believe outdoor learning had been good for pupils’ physical health.

“At the start of the project, some children found the short walk to the local greenspace very tiring, as they were not used to the physical exertion.  There were lots of trips and falls in the greenspace… This was a lot to do with building resilience and getting used to being in a woodland, which improved over the weeks.”  (Falkirk partner) 

For all the positive impacts of outdoor learning on pupils’ emotional and physical health, it would seem likely that teachers would also reap some similar benefits from being out in nature and being more physically active through the school day. Certainly the project positively impacted on teacher confidence in teaching outdoors (up from 54% to 85%), and this, combined with seeing their pupils more engaged in learning outdoors (up from 56% to 79%), would surely give greater on-the-job satisfaction?

Teacher awareness and confidence in outdoor learning grew over the course of the project.

In addition to the health and wellbeing benefits to pupils and teachers, it would seem there was a ripple effect going on through the project, with anecdotal evidence that pupils’ families and communities would reap positive impacts from the outdoor learning experience. Pupils were frequently reported to be taking family members and friends to ‘their’ greenspace at weekends and after school and these spaces were being rediscovered as a community asset to be enjoyed and to take pride in.

“Many families visited the woods during this stressful and worrying times [Covid-19 lockdowns]. Many families sent us photos, or shared what they had been doing in the woods, and I’m positive that it helped to ‘save and support’ during those uncertain months.” (Head teacher, South Lanarkshire)

“We are working clearing up all the rubbish, giving back to the community” (Pupil, Fife)

Much has been written about the impact of the global pandemic on the health and emotional wellbeing of the nation. As we re-emerge from the pandemic, outdoor learning deserves to be recognised as a possible solution to helping our young people not only to heal from the impacts of the pandemic, but also to thrive and engage in their learning.

For more information about learning in local greenspace, see our website.

Sue Munro is a Greenspace Officer with NatureScot.

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