How taking learning outside can impact student wellbeing – and outcomes

  • How taking learning outside can impact student wellbeing – and outcomes

When our biology department undertook a Royal Society funded project to find out if being amongst nature affected pupils’ wellbeing, we did not expect to find statistically significant results. Our aim was simply to give our sixth formers an opportunity to carry out real research over a long period of time; to give them an insight into the trials and tribulations of being a practising scientist. The benefits were all in the taking part, the scientific process, not the results.

A group of sixth form students planned an experiment that involved pupils answering a questionnaire designed to assess their happiness before setting off on a ten-minute walk and then responding to the same questions upon their return. Three walking environments were tested: some students walked around the running track, others through an area of high biodiversity, and a third group walked within the school building. I was sceptical that such a short stroll could have any measurable impact on feelings of wellbeing, and tentatively suggested to the students that it was likely that we wouldn’t find any difference between the walks. This happens to scientists working in the field all the time, I continued, we will evaluate and modify. I then finished with the classic: it will be good for you.

Significant impact

However, as we laboriously waded through the 600 pieces of data we had gathered, a pattern emerged. After carrying out a statistical analysis we discovered that self-reported happiness was significantly higher after walking through an area with an abundance of nature than following a stroll around the school field. We carried out the test again and again, and still the same pattern emerged. Just ten minutes spent in our mini nature reserve, it seemed, improved wellbeing. Our results were so interesting that IRIS (the Institute for Research in Schools) has started a nationwide project called Well World to encourage secondary school students to carry out their own research to explore the links between their environment and their mental and physical wellbeing.

Luckily staff at our school have been incredibly supportive and receptive to changing practices as a result of our research. More teachers are using the outdoor space for lessons and events, and staff as well as students are using the area during breaks and lunch. This year, all forms have spent some tutor time in our nature reserve as part of their work on the theme of community and It has become clear during these sessions that many pupils are disconnected from nature: “I’ve never seen a stinging nettle before” said one of the year 9s.

More space

The Wildlife Trust states that “those that have the least access to nature also have the worst levels of physical and mental wellbeing. Seeing birds near our homes, walking through green spaces filled with wildflowers, and along rivers that are clean and clear, reduces stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression.” With this in mind we should surely be increasing the natural area available for school children to play, study and relax in, not reducing it. Recommended non hard surfaced social area is 2600m2 for a school with 1000 pupils, and recommended habitat space is a paltry 0.5m2 per pupil.

Landscaping to encourage nature doesn’t have to be labour intensive; in fact, it is much less costly to maintain than mown grass. As an added bonus, if every school had an area dedicated to increasing biodiversity, think of the positive impact it would have on our wildlife. Sir David Attenborough recently commented, “no one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” Our wildlife is in crisis and more of our children than ever are struggling with mental health issues. A nature-rich school environment could help with both of these issues. No child should leave school having had no experience of our native wildlife; and they should all know, at the very least, what a stinging nettle looks like!

5 ways to increase biodiversity on a school site:

Plant a hedge

The RSPB states that hedges may support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies. Schools can apply to the woodland trust for free hedgerow trees.

Introduce a patch of meadow

Clear an area of grass and sow wildflower seeds (the most successful meadows are created using a seed mix suitable for the soil type).

Set up bird boxes and bird feeders

It is best to avoid nest boxes that have a combined bird feeder, and boxes should not be sited too close to the bird feeders, either, as visitors to the latter could disturb nesting birds.

Introduce a log pile

Stack logs where they will stay moist, but not get too cold (dappled shade is best). Decaying wood is an important resource for numerous insects, which themselves provide food for small mammals and birds.

Dig a pond

This can be the most costly addition and brings health and safety issues. However, if a large or even medium sized pond is impossible a buried half barrel or tubtrug will still introduce a huge variety of invertebrate species and amphibians to your site.

Try this: Outside learning ideas across the curriculum

Sampling is part of the biology GCSE course, so this is an obvious use of your outside space. However, collecting organisms from your site (this is where the log pile and pond come in handy), is a great way to look at adaptations, food webs, niches etc.

Using a clinometer and trigonometry, students can measure the height of trees in maths.

Learners can make bird boxes and/ or feeders in D&T lessons. Webcams can be fitted into bird boxes and trail cameras can be put up anywhere where you think wildlife is visiting. Our trail camera has recorded wildlife you would not normally see in the school day, such as badgers, foxes and hedgehogs.

An outdoor space is excellent for drama in the round and shared reading. Where better to experience seasonal poetry than outside amongst the mists and mellow fruitfulness?

Artists can use the outdoor environment to draw from nature and appreciate landscape. Our sixth form students use our grounds when they study the work of David Hockn

About the author

Sam Goodfellow is a biology teacher at Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School. Her work on the relationship between biodiversity and wellbeing inspired the Well World project currently available through a partnership between IRIS and Wellcome. You can find more information on Well World and how you can get involved here: