Pondering Outdoor Education: Without it We’re in Deep Water
Updated: Oct 7
I was heartened to see that one of the successful entries of this year’s CIRIA BIG Biodiversity Challenge Awards is Golborne Wetlands – a community project within Golborne High School grounds that has seen a disused hockey pitch transformed into a wetland haven. A fantastic opportunity to showcase the benefits of nature-based solutions to young people through outdoor learning. Afterall, outdoor learning is known to help children develop their creativity, independence, sense of self and problem-solving capabilities - what better way to do this than in the context of the world around them and the value of that world? I found myself asking, ‘why isn’t outdoor education widely seen to be at the core of solving our climate and biodiversity crises?’
Perhaps one should first ask, ‘why is education important for the natural world?’. I think the simple answer is that most children naturally want to make a positive change to the world around them. A nature-positive education can teach them an empathy for nature whereby they put their own actions in the context of cause and effect.
These days, children know many of the facts and consequences of climate change and feel powerless to act. A study conducted in 2021 (Marks, E. et al., 2021) showed that 60% of the 10,000 16–25-year-olds interviewed felt ‘worried’, or ‘extremely worried’ about the climate and biodiversity crises, with 45% of them saying that their worry impacted their daily lives. Outdoor education may well be the antidote to this climate-anxiety that we’re seeing in children across the world today.
Many of us have seen the Carbon Tunnel Vision infographic from the article in the Global Reporting Initiative from 2021 (Nybo Jensen, T., 2021) about the need to strive for an integrated approach to solve problems related to climate change. Here, education is considered to merely be one of the themes for addressing climate change. But I think it is much more important than that – education is the very base from which our values and decisions are made: make nature-positive education the core of society, and the solutions to these problems may turn around faster results than from a place of retrofitting ecological appreciation into adult decision-makers. Arup has this in mind and has been working with primary schools in Hertfordshire to bring nature closer to their pupils by designing areas for Forest School activities, such as meadows and woodland walks with bug hotels, mud kitchens, and wooden seating. But will instilling this education method perhaps require a radical overhaul in our national education systems?
The UK Department for Education has approved a new GCSE in Natural History, which will enable students to develop a rich understanding of the natural world. Not just of their own local wildlife and ecosystems but of the critical global challenges like biodiversity, sustainability, and climate change. Of course, this cannot be effectively learnt without the crucial outdoor element. It is a good start, but I think an education in the natural world should be introduced even earlier in a child’s life. Allowing children to connect to nature from an early age will, over the years, help them adapt themselves to our rapidly changing climate – giving them a set of values and skills which will have far-reaching and positive effects for the climate well into their adulthood.
We need more of these initiatives like Golborne Wetlands - children will one day form our governments and decision-makers, so outdoor education is truly one of the most important tools for real change.
Ish Campbell de Almeida, Senior Ecologist, Arup
LinkedIn: Ish Campbell de Almeida
Marks, Elizabeth and Hickman, Caroline and Pihkala, Panu and Clayton, Susan and Lewandowski, Eric R. and Mayall, Elouise E. and Wray, Britt and Mellor, Catriona and van Susteren, Lise. (2021). Young People's Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3918955 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3918955
Nybo Jensen, T., (2021). Expert Opinion: Avoiding carbon tunnel vision. Environment Analyst, GRI (https://environment-analyst.com/global/107463/expert-opinion-avoiding-carbon-tunnel-vision).