Is it greener on the other side?

Subject: Editors picks
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The evidence suggests that two hours of lessons in the fresh air per week can do students considerable good, writes Gordon Cairns…

Effortlessly kayaking around the archipelago of tiny islands just off the west shore of Loch Lomond, on a glorious summer’s day with a group of blissed out students. It was an experience that made all those months of planning, fundraising and extracting consent and medical forms from busy parents more than worth the hassle.

Making land on Inchconnachan Island – an island where Australian colonists brought their favourite marsupials back to the UK – and then searching for wild wallabies was topped only by our paddling close to a herd of Highland cows, who had escaped the rare heat by standing up to their knees in the cool waters of the loch.

Yet if I had came across a recent study from the University of Exeter Medical School (see bit.ly/nat-env) before spending hours planning our voyage to Scotland’s most beautiful loch, I might have simplified my working life by staying closer to home. According to the report’s authors, our group of teenagers could have just gone on an expedition as far as the school grounds or to a local park to gain significant health and wellbeing benefits.

The researchers studied a sample of 20,000 adults, and found that among those spending little or no time in nature, a quarter reported poor health and almost half expressed dissatisfaction with their lives. Conversely, only 14% of adults spending at least two hours in nature each week complained of poor health, while two thirds expressed satisfaction with their lives. These beneficial effects of nature seemed to apply across all groups taking part in the study, regardless of age, social class or even previous levels of health.

Surprisingly, this two-hour dose of eco-therapy needn’t be taken in one sitting, nor does it have to occur in a wild and remote area. It just needs to happen outside of walls and a roof, and away from the oppressive, artificially lit and centrally heated atmosphere of a typical British classroom in winter. The publication of research like this, with its attention-grabbing findings, should hopefully help teachers make a stronger case for moving their classes outside for a spell.

Quantifiable benefits

Everybody knows that being outside makes us feel better (so long as we’re not freezing or suffering from hay fever), but being able to evidence and quantify those positive feelings we experience via scientific research makes it far easier to persuade SLT of the merits of taking classes outside, in the face of grumbling about risk assessments or best use of time.

This idea that spending two hours outdoors each week is good for you can hopefully be elevated alongside other positive lifestyle markers, such as ‘five-a-day’ fruit and veg and taking 10,000 steps. That way, we might also see the attitude of students and parents shift away from thinking that taking a class outside the school building will be detrimental to their education.

As teenage mental health issues continue to seemingly multiply, those hardy teachers taking their students outside for that impromptu English lesson in the playground or geographical walk around the neighbourhood can start to make explicit connections between mood and the outdoor environment. In time, the pupils themselves may opt to go outside to improve their mood, rather than by seeking a quick hit of social media or gaming. It’s often the small things in life that make us happy, rather than getting that new game or eating at Nando’s, but this isn’t being stressed enough to our increasingly materialistic teenagers.

Last month my Forest School class spent time in a local country park, designing and building structures out of fallen branches and ferns that could survive the upcoming winter storm, but that’s not all they were doing. They were also developing their long-tern physical and mental health and general wellbeing – a win-win, however you want to look at it.

About the author

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher who works in a unit for secondary pupils with ASD; he also writes about education, society, cycling and football for a number of publications.