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.