A Miracle on 34th Street? The true meaning of learning in natural environments

This festive post comes to us from Sue Waite, Project lead for the Natural Connections Demonstration Project and Associate Professor (Reader), Plymouth Institute of Education

Christmas is coming and the John Lewis advert has some of us dabbing tears from our eyes as a little girl shows intergenerational empathy for a lonely man on the moon. As the tinsel and trees begin to multiply, I think it is worth thinking about what we might wish for our children this Christmas.

Karen Malone and I have been busily compiling the Learning in the Natural Environment Pathways to Impact report[1] following the highly successful Lessons from Near and Far international conference on outdoor learning in July. From reviews of outdoor learning research and the presentations made on the day, we discerned the following aspirations for children of the 21st century in a rapidly changing world that demands flexibility and creativity:

  • a healthy and happy body and mind
  • a sociable confident person
  • a self-directed creative learner
  • an effective contributor
  • an active global citizen

All these attributes are linked through research to various forms of outdoor learning and the benefits that accrue from children becoming re-connected with nature. The report sets out some evidence for how specific outcomes can be supported through outdoor learning but we hope it will also provide a framework to direct, gather and collate further research findings, especially where few currently exist. This report and a recent systematic review for the Institute for Outdoor Learning emphasise the demonstrated value of increasing access to outdoor learning for children and young people.

They show that we don’t need a miracle to achieve tangible benefits for children of being physically active and healthy and feeling happy, empathetic, confident and resilient. Greater agency in their learning and living through more creative teaching and learning are also possible outcomes. Children can also become more aware and caring about their community and the planet. All it needs is more commitment to and investment in mediating children’s relationships with nature in carefully chosen ways.

As another Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life depicts, difficult external circumstances can damage a person’s outlook and hopes but strong relationships are fundamental to resilience in education, family and community life. There is considerable evidence that spending time in natural environments with others helps to develop these important foundations, but that many children don’t have access to this on a regular basis, particularly those living in more deprived areas. The Natural Connections project by working with 125 schools in these areas over the last three years has made an amazing difference to thousands of children, who may not otherwise have benefitted.

The true meaning of learning in natural environments is that it goes to the heart of children’s rights: to be happy, healthy and to succeed in life. I can’t think of a better Christmas wish, can you?


[1] The Learning in Natural Environments Pathways to Impact report will be published in the New Year, January 2016.


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One comment on “A Miracle on 34th Street? The true meaning of learning in natural environments

  1. Pingback: A Miracle on 34th Street? The true meaning of learning in natural environments | Mr. Cooper

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