Press release

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

The Natural Connections Demonstration project has published new evidence on the benefits of outdoor learning to pupils, teachers and schools.

A class of children enjoy taking part in an outdoors learning session near their school
Pupils taking part in an outdoor learning session © Natural Connections

Children from 125 schools across the South West of 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 4-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.

The project, which is funded by Natural England, Defra and Historic England and delivered by Plymouth University, is the largest project of its kind in England and has already helped more than 40,000 primary and secondary school pupils get out of their classrooms and into the outdoors – whether that’s a maths lesson in a local park or drama out on the school field.

Environment Minister Rory Stewart said:

We learn to love nature as children, and our commitment to nature later in life – respecting it, protecting it, restoring it, or simply enjoying it – is built on that childhood foundation. That’s why it’s so important we give all children the chance to experience the natural world.

What’s clever about this project is it listens to teachers, it works with the grain of an individual school, and it works out how to get children into the outdoors while improving their curriculum experience.

Speaking at Wallscourt Farm Academy in Bristol at the launch of the findings, Natural England’s Chairman, Andrew Sells, said:

The Natural Connections project has empowered teachers to make the most of what’s right on their doorstep and helped children experience the joy of the natural environment. It’s brought a real culture change into schools, making learning in the outdoors a regular part of school life – and it’s inspiring to see children more engaged with learning and happier and healthier as a result.

Sue Waite, Associate Professor in Outdoor Learning at Plymouth University, said:

The model for this project was built on substantial evidence into both the benefits and challenges schools face when embedding outdoor learning into core teaching. By working directly with teachers we’ve helped to bring about a sustainable culture of outdoor learning across schools that will continue long after the project has ended and will leave behind a lasting legacy.

For the first time, the Natural Connections project provides strong evidence that learning outdoors has multiple benefits for school children. 92 per cent of teachers surveyed said that pupils were more engaged with learning when outdoors and 85 per cent saw a positive impact on their behaviour.

The majority of children also thought they learned better and achieved more when learning outside. 92 per cent of pupils involved in the project said they enjoyed their lessons more when outdoors, with 90 per cent feeling happier and healthier as a result.

The project has found taking lessons outside can help motivate teachers, with 79 per cent of teachers reporting positive impacts on their teaching practice. Almost 70 per cent of teachers said that outdoor learning has had a positive impact on their job satisfaction and 72 per cent reported improved health and wellbeing.

The Natural Connections project focused mainly on areas of deprivation in Plymouth, Torbay, Bristol, Cornwall and Somerset, working in both urban and rural schools with varying school grounds and access to local green spaces. These areas are now developing innovative ways to continue supporting outdoor learning across the school networks they have established through the project.

Natural England is now working with partners to help share the findings from this project to support and enhance the provision of outdoor learning in schools across England.

A full copy of the Natural Connections project report can be downloaded from Natural England’s Access to Evidence publications catalogue.

A short film to accompany the publication of the project report highlights the achievements of the project and includes contributions from teachers and pupils talking about their experiences.

‘Transforming Schools through Outdoor Learning’, a practical guide for practitioners, will be published at the start of the new school term to help equip teachers with the tools they need to bring innovative outdoor learning ideas to their own schools.

Background information

Why was Natural Connections set up?

The evidence is clear – getting children outdoors is fantastic for their health, wellbeing and learning and can set them on a pathway to happy, healthy and environmentally sustainable lifestyles. Schools are community gateways to enable these opportunities for all children, yet only around 8 per cent of school age children in England get out of their classrooms into green spaces (i.e. exploring a local park or farm, or going on a trip to a National Park).

Natural Connections was developed in response to research and insight studies into the barriers and benefits of outdoor learning in schools. It was launched following evidence that the challenges to learning outside the classroom in the natural environment in schools were local and revolved around a lack of teacher confidence in teaching outside.

About the project

Natural Connections was established to pilot and evaluate new ways of providing local, independent support to schools and teachers to encourage demand for outdoor learning. Over the past four years it has supported schools and teachers to build outdoor learning into their planning and practices and encouraged the supply of high quality learning outside the classroom in the natural environment.

The aim of the project was to increase the number of school children, particularly from disadvantaged communities, able to experience the full range of benefits that come from learning in local natural environments. It worked with 125 primary and secondary schools, over 40,000 pupils (key stages 1-4, up to GCSE level), and more than 2,000 teachers. Networks, or ‘clusters’, of schools were established to support each other in overcoming challenges to learning in natural environments and share ideas and experiences with each other.

Key findings

  • 95 per cent of children surveyed said outdoor learning makes lessons more enjoyable
  • 90 per cent said they felt happier and healthier
  • 72 per cent of children said they got on better with others
  • 93 per cent of schools said outdoor learning improves pupils’ social skills
  • 92 per cent of schools said it improves pupils’ health and wellbeing and engages them with learning
  • 85 per cent of schools saw a positive impact on behaviour
  • 90 per cent of staff surveyed found outdoor learning to be useful for curriculum delivery
  • 72 per cent of schools reported that outdoor learning had a positive impact on teachers’ health and wellbeing
  • 79 per cent of teachers surveyed said outdoor learning had a positive impact on their teaching practice and 69 per cent said it had a positive impact on their professional development
  • 72 per cent said outdoor learning improved their health and wellbeing and 69 per cent said it had a positive impact on their job satisfaction

About Plymouth University

Plymouth is a dynamic and distinctive university that strives for the highest quality in all that it does. It is a top 50 research (1) institution with genuine clusters of world class research across areas as diverse as marine science and engineering, medicine, robotics and psychology – all supported by investment in leading facilities.

With more than 26,000 students benefitting from a Plymouth education, the University has a strong track record in teaching excellence and has one of the highest numbers of National Teaching Fellows of any UK university.

Plymouth is a truly global university, with a vibrant international student base and with partnerships in 30 countries. It continues to grow in stature and influence - a twice winner of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education, the first modern university in the UK to launch its own medical and dental school and the only university to be awarded the Social Enterprise Mark.

(1) Research Fortnight Research Power League Table 2014

About Wallscourt Farm Academy

Wallscourt Farm Academy opened in September 2013 at the heart of the Cheswick Village development and Stoke Park area. The Academy is located in a brand new, purpose built learning environment. Learning inside and outside is a key part of the vision for learning at Wallscourt Farm, The Academy is part of the Cabot Learning Federation family of schools.

Published 14 July 2016