Natural Connections Demonstration Project
Natural Connections, a 4 year demonstration project funded by Defra, Natural England and Historic England and delivered by Plymouth University, was developed in response to research and insight studies into the barriers and benefits of outdoor learning in schools. The project, which came to an end in April, has been testing and evaluating new ways of providing local, independent support to schools and teachers to stimulate both the demand from schools for cross-curricular outdoor learning and the supply of training and support networks to build teacher confidence and skills.
Natural Connections aimed to increase the number of school children, particularly from disadvantaged communities, able to experience the full range of benefits that come from learning in local natural environments, by reducing the barriers teachers face when wanting to take lessons outside. The Project worked on a large scale, with 125 schools, 40,000 pupils and 2,000 teachers across the South West.
A School Led Model
Schools are gateways to enable all children to have opportunities to enjoy and learn in their local outdoors, yet in 2013-15 only 8% of children aged 6-15 in England got out of their classrooms into greenspaces each month.
The Natural Connections Project was designed around hubs, with “hub leaders” having educational and outdoor learning expertise creating “clusters” of schools, which supported each other in overcoming challenges to learning in natural environments, sharing ideas and inspiring experiences with each other. The project focused on areas of deprivation in Plymouth, Torbay, Bristol and areas within Cornwall, Somerset and Wiltshire, working in both urban and rural schools with varying school grounds and levels of local greenspace.
The Project was school led, and worked with teachers and local service providers to embed outdoor learning into everyday school activity, in a sustainable way that connects the natural environment with the priorities of the school and the curriculum. The project collected a significant quantity of data from project participants to test the project aims, capture evidence of impact and to make recommendations to inform future practice. The findings show tangible benefits of this approach to outdoor learning for teachers, pupils and schools as a whole.
‘There is nothing more powerful [for a teacher] than having another teacher say … This is how I did it! … And understanding how that teacher overcame different barriers’. (hub leader)
Benefits for Teachers
At a time when the teaching profession is under pressure and teachers report increased levels of stress and reduced job satisfaction, this project shows that taking lessons outside can both empower and motivate teachers.
‘Working outdoors creates engagement and… logically, greater interest leads to greater focus and greater participation and as a result greater attainment’ (School Principal, a Natural Connections Project School)
Through smart project models like this, outdoor experiences don’t have to be an extra-curricular add-on or something that is nice to do when the teachers have time. Keeping things local reduces paperwork, costs and time, enabling schools to use the outdoors more frequently. Throughout the project staff in schools consistently reported that outdoor learning was useful for curriculum delivery, and it was regularly used for teaching across the whole curriculum in both primary and secondary schools, including the core subjects of English, maths and science.
Benefits for children
This project provides strong evidence, for the first time on this scale, that increased learning in local natural environments has multiple benefits for children in school including social skills, health and well-being and engagement with learning.
“The children love it! It’s fun, it’s exciting and allows them to take control of their learning”
The hub leaders involved in the Project have enabled schools to develop their own networks, and most have continue to work with schools offering them further training and support. The project has also expanded during its lifetime and formed a number of strategic partnerships with a range of organisations. This includes the Naturally Healthy Devon Schools Project funded by the Campaign to Protect Rural England Devon and delivered in partnership with Devon County Council and the Devon Local Nature Partnership. This has continued the reach of the Natural Connections project with an additional emphasis on pupil health.
Implications for practice
The publication of the best practice guide for practitioners to be released in September will use the findings and learning from the Natural Connections project to provide teachers and outdoor learning providers with the tools they need to implement cross curricular outdoor learning in their own settings.