Nature schools could soon be sprouting up around the country. The Wildlife Trusts have already established several of these schools with the hope of encouraging children to connect with nature, far away from the urban hustle and bustle and the restrictive classroom environment. In recent years, there has been much research pointing to the benefits of outdoor teaching and its positive impact on children’s learning and development.

One of these schools, the Elves and Fairies Woodland Nursery, has recently been hailed by Ofsted for its back-to-nature approach. The outdoor nursery meets in a remote forest in Dorset, and it has no running water or electricity. Children as young as two years of age spend their time at the nursery chopping wood, clambering over trees, playing in the mud and cooking their lunch on an open fire.

After witnessing the nurseries innovative learning methods, Ofsted inspectors rated the nursery ‘outstanding’. This came as a no surprise to the teachers at the nursery. The inspector who visited the school noted how natural learning was used as a tool to prepare the children to take up the challenges of life.

The pre-school group spend the whole day outside in the elements, and they’ve adapted the motto “there is no such thing as bad weather – only the wrong clothing”. During a thunderstorm, the children are directed towards the village hall for safety. The nursery was launched by Kirsteen Freer in 2007, but it only switched to being fully outdoors in the past six years.

In order to keep close watch over the children, five staff members are included in the team. They ensure full safety for a maximum of 12 children at a time. This healthy teacher to child ratio ensures that there is an individual focus on the youngsters.

The children love to participate in camping activities and sing campfire songs. They’re also able to hone their craft skills by constructing shelters and chopping vegetables for lunch under the watchful eyes of adults. These group activities help the children to develop a sense of cooperation and stewardship. Instead of academic learning, the focus is on helping young children to become more aware of their natural surroundings.

One of the most important aspects of the nursery is that it doesn’t prevent the children from experimenting in the natural environment. The children can roll around in the mud and get completely covered without making the teachers angry. It’s a wonderful experience that encourages the children to understand and respect the beauty of the natural world.

Nursery teachers use novel way of teaching basic mathematics to the children. Children use sticks to learn how to count and do basic fractions. As far as art is concerned, it is taught with the help of the barks and leaves of trees. During rainy days, the children can wear raincoats and splash in puddles with complete freedom.

Children also indulge in creative activities such as weaving and bread making. They’re encouraged to grow their own plants in the forest surroundings. Just like a camping holiday, the children learn a lot by spending time in close proximity to nature. The teachers at the nursery hope that the children will grow into responsible adults who appreciate the intricacies of the natural environment. Following Ofsted’s glowing review of the nursery, it’s possible that we could be seeing a lot more of these schools in the future.

In a bid to reconnect young people with the natural world, a petition has been launched calling for the development of a GCSE in Natural History. The petition is urging the government’s Department of Education to develop the qualification in order to ‘make nature part of British society again’.

Instead of focusing on biological processes, the new syllabus would involve observing and recording nature through the seasons; an amateur naturalist tradition which was once commonplace in the UK. The aim is to help young people to understand the vital contribution that nature makes to our lives physically, culturally, emotionally and scientifically, both in the past and in the present day.

The campaign is being led by Mary Colwell, a radio and TV producer who is also a keen advocate for nature conservation. Last year, Colwell completed a solo 500-mile walk spanning from the West Coast of Ireland to East Anglia in an effort to publicise the plight of the endangered Curlew bird. Her efforts gained a response from the Irish government, who created a task force to try to protect the bird.

Britain’s reputation for recording its natural history was once unsurpassed anywhere in the world, but now, Colwell believes that new generations are becoming increasingly disconnected from the world around them.

Indeed, a survey conducted last year found that three-quarters of UK children now spend less time outside than prison inmates do. In only a few years, the time spent by children playing in parks, woods and fields has shrunk massively. Shockingly, it was also found that one-fifth of the children who took part in the survey did not play outside at all on an average day.

As well as taking negative effects on children’s physical and mental well-being, Colwell believes that this enclosed lifestyle has led to indifference surrounding environmental issues. The first State of Nature Report, which published in 2013, reported that 60% of wildlife had declined over the past 50 years. Out of the species assessed, as many as one in ten faced extinction. By making young people more aware of the natural world, Colwell hopes that they’ll become more interested in its future conservation.

She commented that “British society has never been so hands-off and ignorant when it comes to nature. We can no longer name common species or know the basics of their life cycles and what they need to survive. It is therefore not surprising that as nature thins out we hardly notice… As we lose species, we lose interest”.

In 2015, a group of authors including Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo joined forces to protest nature-related words being removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. The dictionary is aimed at is aimed at seven-year-olds starting Key Stage Two, yet words describing the natural world such as ‘acorn’, ‘catkin’, ‘buttercup’ and ‘conker’ had been taken out and replaced with digital terms such as ‘blog’, ‘broadband’, ‘cut-and-paste’ and ‘chatroom’. Despite the signatures of over 28 notable authors, the nature vocabulary was not restored.

It seems that education on the natural world is needed now more than ever before. If the petition reaches 100,000 signatures, then the government will be required to respond and debate the issue in parliament. The petition had already gathered 7,000 signatures at the time of going to press, and it will expire on 9th July.

The UK’s largest environmental organisation, the Wildlife Trusts, have applied to open four ‘nature schools’ in communities around England. If all goes to plan, the schools will be run as academies and funded by the government under the Department of Education’s free schools program.

The idea behind the program is to encourage more learning to take place outside of the classroom. The Wildlife Trust team have been working with specialist educational consultants to demonstrate the value of outdoor learning, and they hope to influence the way that schools all over the country teach their pupils.

If plans are approved, the four schooling sites will be located at Chippenham in Wiltshire, Nuneaton in Warwickshire, Okehampton in Devon and Smethwick in the West Midlands. The trust says that children at the schools will spend “as much time as possible” learning outdoors and “certainly some time every day” will be spent in the surrounding woodland areas.

Pupils enrolled at the schools will be educated in core national curriculum subjects, but instead of being taught in classrooms, teachers will use the surrounding natural environments as a tool for learning. A typical day might include learning maths by working out the age of a local tree, while history could also be involved by linking the stages of its life to past events.

There is a is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the classroom environment could actually be harmful to children’s learning. Forcing pupils to sit down for hours at a time can cause them cause them to lose interest in learning as they get restless and struggle to concentrate.

Learning outside the classroom seems to be the only viable solution to this problem. Even Ofsted seem to agree. A report from 2008 stated that lessons taught outdoors ‘contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development and can also help to combat underachievement’.

In particular, it was the presence of nature that helped children to develop cognitive skills more effectively than in a classroom. A 2016 study by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust found that following an environmentally focused curriculum outdoors helped to increase children’s writing skills by as much as 27%, as well as improving their reading, mathematics, and overall attendance.

Georgia Stokes, who is the Chief Executive of the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, said that “Children and adults can learn better by being connected to nature, but society is becoming increasingly disconnected to it. This is bad for children, their health and wellbeing and happiness in general”.

The Wildlife Trusts intend to create even more nature schools in the future, with the hope of encouraging children around the country to step outside and enjoy the delight of the natural world around them. The application for the four schools will be submitted in April, with a final decision expected in the autumn. If the government approve of the plans, the first Nature School could be opened as soon as September 2018.

Kensal Rise Primary School in the North West of London used to be a less than shining example of the British education system. According to Ofsted the standard of teaching was inadequate and the half acre of land surrounding the school was derelict and under-utilised.

This was until the Ark group and Chef Thomasina Miers took an active interest in turning the school around.

Miers initially came into the public eye by winning Master Chef. Since then she’s founded the Mexican food chain Wahaca. She lives just minutes from the school and regularly passes it when taking her children to the park.

Her fear was that the derelict land around the school would be sold off by the government as has been done so many times in the past. She wanted to prevent this while addressing recent concerns over the increasing rates of child obesity, and so created a safe space in which children could spend more time outdoors.

The Ark group is an international organisation with a reputation for turning underperforming schools around. They focus predominantly on children from poorer communities and run a network of 34 primary and secondary schools around the United Kingdom.

Kensal Rise Primary was a suitable candidate for their assistance. Ofsted reported that in 2012 the number of children in the school eligible for free meals was above average. The result was that in 2013 the school was taken over by the Ark group.

In September the three form primary school reopened under the name Ark Franklin Academy. The school was renamed in honour of Rosalind Franklin – a renowned scientist who contributed toward the discovery of DNA. This marked the beginning of new era for the formerly underperforming school.

Soon after new head teacher Janine Ryan took over the reins, Miers contacted her with a novel proposal. She suggested transforming the wasteland surrounding the school into an open-air classroom – incorporating this into the school’s curriculum.

Ryan was enthusiastic about the idea. Taking inspiration from international models, she set about planning the new garden. Many of her ideas are based on the Stephanie Alexander kitchen garden programme, which has been successfully implemented in more than 800 schools around Australia.

Statistics indicate that the number of children under age of five that suffer from obesity will increase from 41 million to 70 million by 2025. This is according to a survey conducted in over 45 European countries. It’s also estimated that 10% of British children between the age of 5 and 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder.

Miers and fellow local mother Laura Harper-Hilton believe that giving children a chance to experience the outdoors and showing them where food comes from is a step in the right direction. This will help alleviate some of the problems caused by them spending too much time staring at screens. The two mothers teamed up to get the garden project at Ark Franklin Primary off the ground.

Their first challenge was to raise the £90 000 needed to fund the project. Through the efforts of parents and the local community they’ve achieved a lot of success in this regard.

By June 2016 they had successfully managed to transform the school’s concrete grounds into a flourishing garden with a biodome, where children grow a variety of vegetables and flowers. Plans are also underway to build a wormery, a fruit tree orchid and a kitchen with a solar oven.