Vitamin N: The missing ingredient in the 21st Century Curriculum

This week’s blog comes to us from Dr Tonia Gray, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Educational Research, University of Western Sydney, Australia.

tonia grayAs a senior member in the Centre for Educational Research at UWS, Associate Professor Tonia Gray researches our estranged human-nature relationship and its impact on child development and well-being, an area known as Eco-pedagogies. For over 30 years, Tonia has written extensively on nature-based practices in teacher education and has been an advocate of infusing outdoor and ‘green’ learning experiences into Australia’s National Curriculum renewal process. Tonia recently presented at the Lessons from Near and Far International Outdoor Learning Conference on 3rd July.

In the words of the renowned philosopher Henry David Thoreau: We need the tonic of wilderness. And yet, in the 21st Century, we find our children increasingly without this ‘tonic’, or what Richard Louv (2011) calls ‘Vitamin N,’ for Nature. All available evidence suggests that young Australians are becoming less likely to engage in free play in outdoor environments (Maller & Townsend, 2006).

In part, the isolation can be attributed to the screen-ager generation and their choice of indoor hobbies, tethered to screens and electrical outlets (for instance social media, computer games, Wii, Nintendo, or television). Given this situation, outdoor educators agree that contemporary students are in dire need of a dose of nature if they are to grow up healthy. In this same vein, David Orr writes poignantly: “The message is urgent: unplug, boot it down, get off-line, get outdoors, breathe again, become real in the real world”.

Just last month, the NSW Auditor-General, Peter Achterstraat, called on the Australian Department of Education and Communities to increase physical activity in NSW government primary schools, who aren’t even providing the minimum laid out in the existing curriculum guidelines, stating that:

“Around 30 per cent of government primary schools are not providing the required two hours of physical education and sport per week.” (Achterstraat, 2012, p. 11)

Researchers have argued that young people need to actively and repeatedly engage with the natural world in order to mature (Kahn & Kellert, 2002; Kellert, 2005; Lester & Maudsley, 2007; Louv, 2008). The relationship of the outdoors to growth and education has been widely acknowledged for centuries. For instance, the German term ‘kindergarten’ means literally, ‘children in the garden,’ clearly indicating the importance of outdoor activity.

Disconcertingly, on the cusp of educational reform in Australia with the implementation of a National Curriculum, we find that the Australian Curriculum Reporting Authority (ACARA) has omitted reference to the outdoors from the draft Health and Physical Education curriculum. The oversight neglects not only traditions of using natural environments for education, but also best practices internationally and emerging research on the dangers of Vitamin N deficiency.

Benefits of Human-Nature Connection

Over the past two to three decades, researchers have recognized the importance of human-nature connection as a determinant of health and wellbeing (see, for example, Kellert & Wilson, 1993; Orr, 2004; Stone, 2009). In contrast to the Australian case, Scandinavian schools, acknowledging the importance of outdoor activity for healthy development, immerse children in nature. Based on eco-pedagogical principles, school children spend approximately three hours each school day outside – rain, hail, snow or shine – in all four seasons. In spite of a climate that would seem to discourage outdoor activities, educators argue that there is no excuse for children staying indoors; one educator told me during a recent visit that their mantra is, ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.’

This begs the question, why does our 21st Century Australian school curriculum have a growing aversion to taking kids outdoors, especially when we have a mild climate and an endless landscape of possibilities? Louv (2011) argues that children could do with a healthy dose of Vitamin N in our curriculum, especially as their leisure activity is increasingly indoors. In the face of the growing need, a child in the outdoors is an endangered species in contemporary schooling (see Gray, Martin & Boyle, 2012).

The result is that some children are becoming outdoor illiterate. Due to the inordinate time spent indoors on level floor surfaces, for example, outdoor educators are finding that Australian children cannot walk confidently and skillfully in outdoor environs; they are unfamiliar with uneven ground, crossing rivers or negotiating steep hilly terrain. Quite clearly, our modern child is not ‘nature smart’ and we need to redress this imbalance (Stone, 2009).

Nature and Well-being

The therapeutic role of nature has been documented as far back as classical Chinese and Greek civilizations (Townsend & Weerasuriya, 2010). Cultures around the world have an intuitive sense that natural environments possess restorative power; we know that outdoor settings ameliorate stress, improve mood, enhance coping ability and assist in combating depression (Nielsen & Hansen, 2007). Ironically, relaxation tapes provide artificial analogues of bird song, babbling streams, or waves crashing on the sand because we insulate ourselves from precisely these sensations. This effect of nature has been linked to biophilia, a term coined by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson (1984) to describe an innate love of nature and an affiliation to all living things shaped by our species’ evolutionary heritage (Sacks, 2009).

Recently, in Victoria we have seen the advent of ‘Feel Blue: Touch Green,’ an innovative mental health program using green spaces to address depression and mental illness (Townsend, 2006). This novel program is an outgrowth of studies which reveal separation from nature is implicated in declining physical, mental, social and spiritual wellbeing.

Australia’s 21st century school curriculum needs to produce a generation of students with greater, not less, environmental awareness. One way this can be accomplished is if we promote access to outdoor environments and develop an affinity with nature. Now more than ever, educators should be ensuring that children get their recommended daily allowance of vitamin N.



References:   Achterstraat, P. (2012).NSW Auditor-General’s Report Physical activity in government primary schools. Department of Education and Communities.    Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) (2012). The Draft Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education (HPE) See, T., Martin, P. & Boyle, I. (2012). Outdoor Education and the Australian National Curriculum. Professional Educator Vol 11( 4) pp 16-18.    Kahn, P. H. & Kellert, S. R. (2002). Children and Nature: Psychological, sociocultural and evolutionary investigations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.   Kellert, S.R. (2005). Building for Life: Designing and understanding the human- nature connection. Washington: Island Press.   Kellert, S.R. & Wilson, E.O. (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington: Island Press.   Lester, S. & Maudsley, M. (2007). Play, Naturally: A Review of Children’s Natural Play. London: Play England.   Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.   Louv, R. (2011). The Nature Principle: Human restoration and the end of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.   Maller, C. J. and Townsend, M. (2006). Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing and Hands- on Contact with Nature: Perceptions of Principals and Teachers. International Journal of Learning 12(4): 359-372.   Nielson, T.S. & Hansen, K.B. (2007). Do green areas affect health? Results from a Danish survey on the use of green areas and health indicators. Health and Place, 13(4), 395-413.    Orr, D.W. (2004). Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.   Sacks, O. (2009). Forward in L. Campbell & A. Wiesen (eds), Restorative Commons: Creating health and wellbeing through urban landscapes. USDA Forest Service, PA, pp 1-3.   Stone, M. (2009). Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability. Centre for Ecoliteracy, Watershed Media Berkeley, CA.   Townsend, M. (2006). Feel Blue? Touch Green! Participation in forest/woodland management as a treatment for depression, Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, 5: 111-120.   Townsend, M. & Weerasuriya, R. (2010). Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature. Deakin University.

Continue reading

“How do you do?” “You do by learning.” “How do you learn?” “You learn by doing.”

This week’s post comes to us from “across the pond” and builds on the theme of  “Using the outdoors for scooperheadteaching across the curriculum”.  The article has kindly been provided by Stephen J Cooper RN who also has his own blog, (, which includes photos of his recent trip to the South West to experience the Natural Connections project and Forest Schools. Steve is the Outdoor Education Coordinator, Physical Education, & School Nurse at North Hills Campus at Winchester Thurston, Pennsylvania. 

Elementary students of the North Hills Campus at Winchester Thurston are studying the American Pioneers. The class of eight and nine year-olds learn about life in America during the 1800’s as part of their Social Studies Unit. In their Language Arts class, the children read from a selection of historical fiction novels with both boy and girl lead characters that details the settlers homesteading experiences on the frontier. One of these stories include Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel Little House In The Big Woods. In the classroom, the students engage in developing a plan for a simulated covered wagon journey across the Great Plains as well as discuss the day to day life of the settlers.


Continue reading

Initial Teacher Training Findings from FACE – Building Confidence

This week’s blog article comes from Hannah Martin from Farming and Countryside Education

What is the best way to help young people learn more about the natural environment? Who can share with them a love of food and farming? There are many inspiring farmers and educators at countryside locations who host school visits and take children on the farm to fork journey.  Job done? Not at all. We need to take a step further back – who introduces children to these exciting outdoor places of learning?  In many cases, the answer is teachers. Farming & Countryside Education is taking a step even further back as we see the key to unlocking further understanding could lie with trainee teachers.

Continue reading

Building Teacher Confidence in Learning in the Natural Environment

This week’s article has come from Martin Northcott, Outdoor Education Manager at Plymouth City Council, the Plymouth Hub Leader for the Natural Connections Demonstration Project.

To build confidence learning in the natural environment it’s important to have a clear aim. Planning quality experiences start with this and moreover evaluating the impact should be measured against it.  Planning and objectives then follow, that are a mix of general and specific ( See Josephs Cornell’s Flow Learning) . Generic could be encouraging children to work well together or developing scientific capacity followed by specific such as questioning, designing, measuring, recording and data analysis . Ofsted’s Maintaining Curiosity in Science urges teachers to let children design their own questions and testing.

Continue reading


This week’s blog comes to us from Jo Schofield and Fiona Danks from Going Wild Look out for their  latest book, “The Beach Book, loads of things to do at lakes, rivers and the seaside”, which will be published at the beginning of June, in time for the summer holidays. Find out how to win a copy by visiting their website.

Like me, I’m sure, you’ll of lots of memories of your school days, some good, some not so good. Looking back, I spent hours in front of books cramming for exams; got a good set of O and A levels, but I really can’t remember anything I actually learnt! The really interesting thing is there are a couple of exceptions to my memory loss.

Continue reading

Challenges to Learning in Natural Environments in Schools

This article has kindly been written by Juno Hollyhock, Executive Director of Learning Through Landscapes.

I don’t think that there are many folk who would question the fact that going outside is a good thing.

We all know and understand the physical health benefits and many people also recognise the benefits to mental and emotional health.

Some would go further and extol the virtues of reconnecting with nature from a sustainability and environmental perspective – look after nature and nature will look after you.

But when it comes to learning in the natural environment (LINE) at school it is not always so straightforward.

Continue reading

“…on this day that hopes for rainbows” – Using the environment to inspire poetry

This post has been kindly written by Gordon MacLellan, aka Creeping Toad

We started with a venue we all valued and a belief that children’s language grew more by direct experience than by just reading, listening and being told about things. Then we stirred into the mix Simon Armitage’s recent translation of “Gawain and the Green Knight” with its beautiful sense of rhythm and movement. A pinch of Michael Morpurgo’s Gawain followed and a grant from the Clore Duffield Foundation coordinated by Mid-Pennine Arts and we were ready to bake, with myself  – environmental storyteller, artist and general creator-of-celebrations – as the spoon that stirs the pot.


But the children run

Down to the river

That races and rushes and ripples,

Rolling over stones and sand,

Running over the ford and

Under the bridges

Full of fish,

And fishermen


A broad broken bow of a bridge

Over the babbling water

A path to the forest

But guarded

Continue reading

Spring into learning

This post is written by Ed Drewitt. Ed is a freelance naturalist and broadcaster and has been taking schools into the outdoors for over 12 years.

Ah, spring is finally here and as the snowdrops give way to the daffodils and the spring leaves, the added warmth from the sunshine provides an ideal opportunity to take your class outside.

You may find the task of simply exploring the trees, leaves, flowers and birdlife a little daunting. What are they? How can we identify them? Is there anything else the children can do to explore the outdoors? But if I asked you whether you know what a spider is, what a ladybird looks like or to describe a daffodil, without assuming too much, it is quite likely you will know the answer.

Continue reading

Linking Outdoor learning to the ICT curriculum.

This article has been written by Ian Tindal. Ian is based in Cornwall and has been working in HE for 17 years initially for The Ultralab and more recently for Anglia Ruskin University. Currently his main work focus is designing and facilitating online work based learning including undergraduate courses that meet the needs of aspiring teachers and other professionals and postgraduate courses for educational leaders. He is a school governor and has previously worked as a KS 2 teacher. His interest in school based learning continues and is the focus of his professional doctorate studies which explores the use of portable technologies for learning outside the classroom. He enjoys spending time in the mountains and the sea, is a keen gardener, storyteller and musician. You can find out more via two blogs, and on Twitter @iantindal

Many teachers I have spoken to over the years say they have had difficulty convincing senior management that outdoor learning of the Forest School kind is valuable and worth investing in, although there does seem to be increasing momentum towards wider acceptance more recently. There is increasing research based evidence of the value of learning, or just being outdoors, for both children and adults. This is coming from clinical, physiological, psychological and pedagogical research and in many countries new initiatives are emerging to address this. At the at the Bristol Daily Dose of Nature conference in March 2015 Richard Louv spoke about the recent initiative in the USA ‘Every Kid in a Park’. The cost of traveling to national parks is a huge issue in the states and the initiative involves private enterprise in an attempt to alleviate the problem.

Continue reading

The Diminished Confidence of Teachers

The third contribution to our set of launch day posts comes from one of the Natural Connections Demonstration Project local hub leaders, Nicholas Garrick. He is Director of Lighting up Learning and is Associate Head teacher of a primary school in Bristol. Over the past 15 years, Nicholas has taught Reception to Year Six; been an Advanced Skills Teacher for Creativity, and now leads Lighting up Learning (, a learning and change consultancy. He and his team’s work focus on making connections and collaborations that lead change within the wider education sector. Lighting up Learning work locally with individuals school and organisations, nationally as part of the Natural Connections Demonstration Project and English Heritage’s Heritage School Project, as well internationally as a leadership and curriculum design specialist predominantly in South East Asia. He also has a Boarder Terrier called Womble.

The Diminished Confidence of Teachers

There is a lot of noise about ‘raising standards’, ‘Ofsted’, ‘new curriculum’ (to name but a few) that mask the biggest threat to our educational system: teacher confidence.  As discussed by John Hattie, teacher expertise one of the most limiting factors to education, and yet schools have more freedom, autonomy and power then ever before. Sir Ken Robinson, creativity and risk guru, suggests the enablement of creativity within schools is at it’s all time lowest. Although this is not exactly news to most School Leaders, it does pose the question about how to support teachers to enhance knowledge, acquire new skills and build confidence to take the risks?

Continue reading