Maximising the benefits our green spaces have for the nation’s health

As evidence continues to build about the mental health benefits of outdoor learning, and calls continue for schools to be assessed on the wellbeing of their pupils as well as their results, we bring you this re-blog from Natural England’s blog page. Written by Chief Executive James Cross, it focuses on the benefits of green spaces for mental health and wellbeing.

We will all know somebody, probably more than one, who has been affected by mental health problems or dementia. These conditions affect every part of our society and each case is a personal tragedy. It’s a growing crisis and one that is placing the health and social care sectors under increasing pressure.

The statistics tell us that 1 in 4 people experience a ‘significant’ mental health problem in any one year in the UK today, with the overall economic and social costs of mental ill health in England, estimated at around £105 billion a year. But I was really shocked to learn that 1 in 10 of our children aged 5-16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – that’s around three children in every school classroom.

At the same time, dementia has just become the leading cause of death in the UK, and directly affects the lives of around 850,000 people – 1 in 14 people over the age of 65 and a staggering 1 in every 6 people over the age of 80 – and the scale of dementia is estimated to double over the next generation.


Our connection with the natural environment is something I’ve been passionate about for a long time. Reconnecting People with Nature is a key theme in Defra’s 25 year plan and Natural England’s Conservation Strategy – putting people at the heart of everything that we do. So, I was delighted when the National Outdoors for All Working Group invited me to speak at the recent ‘Transforming Mental Health and Dementia Provision with the Natural Environment’ conference; the second conference led by the Group focusing on the benefits the natural environment can bring to the nation’s health Natural Solutions to Tackling Health Inequalities.


From left to right: Gregor Henderson Director Wellbeing and Mental Health at Public Health England, Alistair Burns NHS Clinical Director for Dementia, Gina Radford Deputy Chief Medical Officer, and James Cross

With rapidly growing demand for health and social care services, the health sector is increasingly looking at how nature-based health interventions can help to deliver cost effective services for people in their local communities. So, it was fantastic to hear at the conference the interest and commitment from senior individuals from across the health sector to make this work.


The Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Gina Radford, outlined the sheer scale of mental health and dementia in the UK, its impact on the social and economic wellbeing of the country and the profound importance of finding new ways to reconnect people with nature as part of a new approach to tackling these issues. Gregor Henderson, Public Health England’s Mental Health lead and Alistair Burns the NHS’s Clinical Director for Dementia both stressed the value and strength of the evidence which Natural England and others here in the UK including the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter and overseas (e.g. Nature) have produced on the benefits of the natural environment for people’s mental health and wellbeing.


Recently, it has been great to see the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the  Kings Fund and World Health Organisation all recognise that green spaces deliver multiple health benefits. The natural environment in England has so much to offer at all scales and right across the country. From local parks on people’s doorsteps, to our much loved nature reserves, right up to our spectacular public forests and national parks, not to mention blue spaces from canals and rivers to the sea – all interconnected by a vast network of paths and trails.

There are some excellent examples of organisations already active in running nature based initiatives that have beneficial impacts for people with mental illnesses or dementia; such as Care Farms, Green Gym, Walking for Health, Park Walks as well as other environmental conservation and horticulture projects.


However, I think that there is far more we could do together, across our respective sectors, to ensure that those whose health would benefit the most from access to nature have the opportunity to access it. At present, 4.2 million adults in England living in deprived urban areas visit the natural environment on average 40% less than the average adult and 11.5 million adults from relatively low socio-economic groups visit the natural environment 25% less than the average. People living in the most deprived areas in England are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas. On the other hand, the most affluent 20% of areas in England have 5 times the amount of parks or general green space compared with the most deprived 10% of wards.

So, one of the big challenges for Natural England will be to work with partners, both old and new, to transform how the natural environment can support people in their daily lives, wherever they are, whatever their background. This will ensure everyone has access to the full range of benefits that come from getting out into the natural environment including health and wellbeing, but also wider social, educational and environmental benefits. Our ambition includes ensuring people have access to green space close to where they live, better quality green space and better connected green spaces.


This conference was a step on a journey towards addressing the barriers to achieving transformational change in our relationship with the healthcare sector. By bringing stakeholders together, commissioning research and sharing good practice Natural England will continue to work with partners to demonstrate the value of the natural environment and start to take forward partnerships with key health organisations. Early signs of progress are very positive, see recent blogs from Public Health England, the Ramblers Association, the Woodland Trust, the Outdoor Recreation Network (CJS/ORN) and the Sports and Recreation Alliance.

How Outdoor Play is Improving Children’s Mental Health

As our colleagues at Natural England join together with leaders in the health sector to discuss mental health,dementia and the natural environment, we bring you this guest post looking at mental health in children, and how outdoor play, and learning, can help. Mental health is often perceived as an issue for adults however over half of mental health problems in adult life, excluding dementia, start by the age of 14, and three quarters by age 18. Today in the UK, 1 in 10 of school aged children suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – that is around three children in every school class. The Natural Connections Demonstration project recently reported that 90% of children said they felt happier and healthier when learning outside, and in addition, 72% of teachers also reported a positive impact on their health.

Our guest blogger Sam Flatman is an outdoor learning specialist and an Educational Consultant for Pentagon Play. Sam has been designing outdoor learning environments for the past 10 years and believes that outdoor learning is an essential part of child development, which should be integrated into the school curriculum at every opportunity.

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Leave More Trace?

Today’s article comes to us from one of our most popular guest bloggers, Chris Loynes, a Reader in Outdoor Studies at the University of Cumbria. 

The North American approach of ‘leave no trace’ has crossed the Atlantic to the UK and to some other Europe wide outdoor education programmes, especially those with US provenance or influence. At face value this exhortation seems unquestionably a good thing. However, I will suggest that, in many cases it is either turning a blind eye to the more significant human impacts on nature of visiting a wilderness area (Alagona and Simon, 2012) or introduces an ethic that could be counter to sustaining the rich natural/cultural landscapes of Europe (Beery, 2014) and the related educational endeavours to engage young people with this heritage and it’s continued flourishing. At the very least ‘leave no trace’ needs some thought and some clear boundaries before adopting it as an ethic for your outdoor education practices.

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New Teacher’s Guide – Transforming Outdoor Learning in Schools: Lessons from the Natural Connections Project.

This free booklet aims to provide school staff with a compelling introduction to the value and impact of well-planned regular outdoor learning for pupils, teachers and schools as a whole. It sets out the evidence for outdoor learning and shows how schools and their staff can overcome challenges to outdoor learning, and embed it into their policy and practice. Outdoor learning can cost very little, and yet can help schools achieve their priorities in ways that engage children with learning.

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Case Study- Natural Connections at Torpoint Community College

John Golding from Torpoint Community College explains his experience of being involved with the Natural Connections Demonstration Project, and how he has developed outdoor learning at the school.
At Torpoint Community College we got involved in the Natural Connections Demonstration Project three years ago. Through this project we set up an outdoor learning centre in the woods at nearby Antony House which is used by groups of students each week, in tutor groups or mixed age groups. The project allowed us to train a teaching assistant to become an outdoor learning leader to run these activities. We have also encouraged, through Outdoor Learning Challenges, all teachers to teach at least one lesson outside in specified fortnights. These have proved hugely popular with staff and students and now happen termly. From September, outdoor learning will be included in the Year 7 curriculum as part of our design technology rotation.

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Natural Connections Project Infographics

We have had a lot of interest in the Natural Connections project infographics so we have attached them all below for you to save and share with your networks. We hope that they can be used complement the impacts you are finding through other local and national projects.


Animated version:


Long Embedding OLLong Pupil Impact

England’s largest outdoor learning project reveals children more motivated to learn when outside

Media release: Thursday 14 July 2016

Children from 125 schools across the South West on England are happier, healthier and more motivated to learn thanks to a new project commissioned by Natural England that has turned the outdoors into a classroom and helped schools transform ways of teaching.

The findings have been released today by the Natural Connections Demonstration project, a four-year initiative to help school children – particularly those from disadvantaged areas – experience the benefits of the natural environment by empowering teachers to use the outdoors to support everyday learning.

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Learning Everywhere

This week’s article comes to us from Nicholas Garrick, Director at Lighting Up Learning, leaders of the Bristol Hub of the Natural Connections Demonstration Project . As an Executive Coach he works with people to explore possibilities and solutions and as facilitator and consultant he looks for potential to create sustainable impact. He leads the School Direct Primary PCGE Programme for the Cabot Learning Federation, and as part-time Assistant Principal, he is dedicated to creating a set of experiences within the curriculum that enable the learners at Wallscourt Farm Academy to be sensitive, independent, confident, competitive global citizens. He also works as part of the British Council School Leadership Team. 

Outdoor learning is not the same as learning outdoors. From a teacher’s perspective, outdoor learning implies something different or new. It suggests that learning outdoors is somehow better. Whilst the evidence in taking children outdoors is compelling, we have to be careful that it is not presented in such a way that make teachers feel guilty for not engaging it in the way others think they should.

A lesson taught poorly outdoors is still a poor lesson. Just taking it outside does not make it automatically better. Teachers need to be encouraged to decide where the place for learning is, be that park, shop, field or classroom.

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Why Open Farm Sunday?

As 1000s of people make plans to visit a farm as part of the hugely popular Open Farm Sunday operated by LEAF on 5th June, we share with you some interesting insight from Frances Harris about why farmers get involved in teaching the public about what they do. 


Much of the British countryside, which many seek to access through footpaths and the right to roam, is owned by farmers. While the public see the countryside as a place for recreation and enjoyment, farmers see it as a place of work. The fields, crops and grazing livestock of the farming industry are easily visible by those passing. However, rarely do those who frequently visit the countryside have an opportunity to meet with a farmer and discuss what they are doing and why.

A growing interest in where our food comes from and how it is produced has resulted in a rise in popular television programmes about farming, both positive (e.g. Jimmy’s farming heroes) and negative. There has been a surge in farmers’ markets and an increase in local food at supermarkets. LEAF, and other food labels, produce links to individual producers. Farmers realise the need to re-connect with consumers to explain their industry and promote confidence in the food they produce.

Open Farm Sunday has run since 2006. In the first year, nearly 300 farms opened. In 2007, more than 400 farms opened, hosting an estimated 150,000 visitors. Individual farms commonly received 400 or more visitors. The largest open farm, Annables, received more than 3000 visitors. This was opened by the farmer who first championed the idea of Open Farm Sunday, Ian Piggott. Numbers have continued to rise over the years, and last year 291,000 people visited a farm on Open Farm Sunday, and 6,000 children attended an Open Farm School Day (data from LEAF).

So why do farmers do it? In 2008 I interviewed 34 about their motivations, and rewards, for hosting visits to their farms. As we approach the month of “Open farm schooldays” and the weekend where more than 400 farmers will open their doors to the public, it’s worth revisiting the reasons why they do so.


  1. A belief that the wider public (children and parents alike) had lost touch with the knowledge about where food comes from. Famers are keen to explain how food is produced, and teach children about the source of the food they eat.

“Its important for the agricultural industry to engage with customers and future customers.”

2. A belief that that children need to be taken out of the classroom to experience different learning opportunities.

“Education of children through hands-on visits to farms rather than books and academic work a better way”

3. A desire for children to learn about their local environment.

“The school curriculum [comes from] far afield: Africa, S America… but local countryside should be included also”

4. Many farmers feel privileged to have access to the countryside, and want to share this with others.

“Sharing countryside with people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to be there.”

5. “To show them why we do what we do.” Explaining complicated farming operations to those who might observe this from a distance, justifying the use of current farming practices, including methods of rearing livestock, use of pesticides and herbicides.

“Get people out, see what we do, grow.”

6. A desire to justify the subsidies that farmers are given. Farmers were well aware that they receive a large amount from the public purse in the form of subsidies and grants, and felt they should show how the money was used, and why it was needed.

“Feel it is part of the social responsibility of farmers to educate the wider public.”

7. Counteract the bad press of E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks, Mad Cow disease. Farmers want to show counteract these fears by showing that they are farming responsibly.

“show how we make food safe and affordable.”

8. Promote agricultural careers.

“The more we can interact with children it will affect their decisions about what they want to do and where they want to work.”

9. Take pride in their work, their industry.

“To promote the industry we spend our lives in.”  

“Overcomes “get off my land” perception.”

10. In addition to these industry concerns, many farmers said they did it because of the personal rewards of seeing children really enjoying themselves, and discovering about food, farming and the countryside. This personal, heart-warming reward was, for many, justification in itself to do the visits.

 “Pleasure out of seeing them enjoy themselves.”

“I’m very lucky in what I do.”


To see the full research report visit 


#ofs2016; @francesharris00; @outdoorlearnin2

The Noise of Exciting Learning

This week’s article has been carefully compiled for us by Robert Williams, Outdoor Education Adviser, Buckinghamshire County Council. based on an original article for IOL’s Horizons Magazine written by David Crossland. David has worked in outdoor adventure learning as a teacher, lecturer, head of centre, AALS inspector and LA adviser. He is now retired from full time work but maintains an interest and involvement through small amounts of inspection, guidance and consultancy work. He can be contacted at

Gin is making a comeback. It seems that consumption in well-appointed lounges, guests draped over chaise longues is on the increase – a far-cry from life in Hogarth’s famous illustration of ‘Gin Lane’ depicting his judgement about gin as the ruination of the poor. In his sculptures, Alexander Calder finds inspiration in the natural world. Through balance of weight, form, size and colour he goes on to explain; then there is ‘noise’.

What is this noise? How do Calder’s sculptures seem to share the sound of rustling leaves and the pattering of snow? Why do we ‘hear’ the disorder of Gin Lane in Hogarth’s scene? Their creations tell us something of the vitality of their first-hand experiences giving us the noise which extends our understanding. How readily do we hear the noise of exciting learning beyond the classroom chair? Has some vitality of experience been lost over recent years – and if it has – can it be restored?

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