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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The ‘Outdoors Indoors’ and Making Gains: the impact of outdoor residential experiences on students’ examination grades and confidence

This week’s blog comes to us from Dr Carol Fuller. Carol is a sociologist and associate professor at Reading university. She works closely with Fiona Craig and colleagues at Ufton Court Adventure, researching ways in which outdoor residential visits impact on confidence, self-esteem and educational outcomes.


Research I am involved in looks at the ways that how a student identifies themselves as a learner, in terms of their confidence to achieve educationally and in terms of their future career ambitions, is key in explaining their educational aspirations and outcomes. My research explores how attitudes towards education and future educational and career aspirations are not always directly related to actual attainment or potential to attain but are the result of a student’s own understanding of their chances of success.

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Re-blog: Are we at a turning point for outdoor learning?

Jim Burt is Natural England’s Principal Adviser for Outdoor Learning& Outdoors for All. He recently published a blog on Natural England’s pages:

There’s a real buzz around getting kids into the outdoors at the moment – outdoor learning, outdoor play, outdoor education, wild time, whatever you want to call it, everyone’s talking about how important it is to get our children outdoors. From celebrities like Ben Fogle, to commercial companies, to renowned educationalists like Sir Ken Robinson, people are lining up to endorse the value of getting kids away from their screens and into nature. There’s even a new book from well-known author Richard Louv, Vitamin N, presenting us with over 500 nature-oriented challenges. Is this a tipping point?

View the full article here

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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Busting the Myths on Outdoor Learning in Schools

Today we re-blog an article from Jim Burt, Principal Adviser for Outdoor Learning in Natural England, published here.

As the school year draws to a close, children rush out into parks and gardens across the country, enjoying the sunshine and the freedom of being outdoors (and the chance to test out Pokemon Go!). But given their enthusiasm, what can be hard to understand is why children don’t get outside more often as part of their school day too. In the natural environment sector we’re always striving to better connect people with nature so they will care about it and want to help to protect it, and it’s recognised that starting early in life is important to foster that care. Schools are the obvious gateway, with regular, high quality outdoor learning as the tool.

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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

Natural Connections: building teacher confidence

As the findings and messages from the Natural Connections Demonstration Project filter out across the sector, Peter Butts, co-ordinator of the project at The Learning Institute, Cornwall’s Hub talks to us about what has really made a difference in the schools he has worked with.

The data tells an impressive story about the Natural Connections Project : significantly more lessons and classes in outdoor settings than previously; more children learning outside; more time given to outdoor learning; a much stronger engagement with outdoor learning across the curriculum. This is all great news but the statistics don’t tell the whole story, as every teacher knows. Importantly, we need to understand what drives and sustains this improvement. We need to find the engine.

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