The mental health crisis in our schools, which has only grown since the pandemic, weighs heavily on the minds of headteachers and staff across the country. With NHS figures revealing that one in six school-aged children has a probable mental health disorder, schools have become central to combatting this crisis.
While schools have limited resources and are not medical professionals, one significant way we can positively support children’s mental health and wellbeing is by offering life-enhancing opportunities. Importantly, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found during the pandemic that outdoor recreation in green spaces was crucial to combatting feelings of distress. That is why our two schools, and The Primary First Trust more widely, have looked to community organisations to help us develop and transform our outdoor spaces into natural havens that will enhance both our pupils’ learning and their wellbeing.
An experiential curriculum is fundamental to achieving this. Our newly regenerated green spaces can be utilised in science, food tech, geography and art lessons. Pupils can experience the entire growing process from planning to seeding, planting, and maintaining the plant itself. At Lessness Heath, we know from our successful Early Years setting that pupils learn best when they have access to outdoor environments. We also see an improvement in their wellbeing, often driven by their happiness at learning outside and discovering the natural world as part of their school life.
Embedding green spaces into our curriculum is also key to our approach to teaching pupils about sustainability. The Department for Education’s sustainability and climate change strategy reinforced the important role that schools and children’s services can play in building a more sustainable future by ‘greening’ our sites, embedding sustainability into the curriculum and driving towards net zero.
Providing our pupils with the tools to understand the world around them empowers them and can help tackle climate anxiety, which is a significant cause of mental health problems among children and young people. Getting in touch with nature and learning through experiencing builds children’s understanding of the curriculum while instilling a more positive and curious attitude which aids their self-esteem and self-confidence.
At Lessness Heath, we rejuvenated our school grounds over the summer holidays, in particular our ‘Science Garden,’ following a connection between one of our school governors and a local gardener, Neil Moakes, who became our garden project Lead.
Neil connected with the Bexley Allotment community, the Men in Sheds and the West Kent Masonic Community, who worked together and donated their time and expertise to revamp our outdoor area with new flowerbeds and plants, a place for pupils to sit together and a ‘bug hotel’ which stores materials to attract wildlife to the garden.
Meanwhile, Springhead Park were fortunate to receive a financial donation from Ebbsfleet Development Corporation to renovate our school grounds. We knew our pupils had to be at the heart of the decision-making process over how the money was spent. Our school council canvassed our pupils and found that they wanted to enhance the natural space and create a wild sanctuary for animals.
This kickstarted a collaborative process that involved our school councillors meeting with architects and contractors to enact the pupils’ desire to create a space that would attract wildlife. Pupils themselves planted the trees that will become the forest school, to which we have added a pond with marine life donated by the local garden centre. An orchard has also been planted and a rewilded area has bloomed with a variety of plants and flowers. Allowing our pupils to be central to the decision-making process throughout has helped their sense of ownership and responsibility in the space.
Access to wildlife and green spaces at school broadens pupils’ understanding of the world, improves their wellbeing and cultivates a more holistic understanding of their learning. This is important enrichment for all our pupils. And for some, not least those without gardens and few opportunities to spend time in nature, it is crucial.