Aberdeenshire Council’s Education and Children’s Services Committee recently enjoyed input from Professor Donald Gray from the University of Aberdeen on the importance of educating children in and about nature.
Professor Gray has done extensive research into why nature matters in childhood, including the fact that we have an inherent affinity with the natural world as human beings.
He recognises it has a role to play in attention restoration, in empathising with nature and in embodied cognition, capitalising on the idea that our bodies and movement play a fundamental part in memory and learning.
Professor Gray said: “Imaginative play in the natural world is very important; if you give a child a car, they’ll play with it as a car but give them a stick and it could be a wand, drum sticks or a paint brush. It also has a huge impact on health and wellbeing, and is proven to support a decrease in stress and an increase in physical health.
“Even taking exercise outdoors has been shown to be more beneficial to us than that taken elsewhere.
“Children’s experiences in nature also appear to help them develop a resilience to mental ill health in adulthood and support a healthy environmental identity and understanding of the natural world.”
The local authority has done its own research into the activities supporting outdoor learning, and learning in and about nature in schools across Aberdeenshire.
Common examples include gardening, taking lessons outdoors, recycling and litter initiatives, and outings supported by the Council’s Ranger Service.
Mintlaw Academy was cited as an example of best practice, having developed an extensive therapeutic garden after starting with a couple of tubs in a small courtyard area.
The garden has been developed with a team of teachers, pupils, local businesses and members of the community creating a space with therapeutic features such as various paths leading to different areas, a beautiful shelter, sensory flowers and plants, bird feeders and artwork by pupils.
The garden is a long-term project that will evolve over time and will include eco features such as solar panels, water features and areas cultivated purposefully to attract wildlife.
One of the many benefits of the garden is in its use as an outdoor learning area for pupils with additional support needs and mental health issues.
Young people have found this a hugely beneficial resource as an additional space for 1:1s with support staff, using the reflective area to promote discussion and the flower beds to weed and plant.
Cllr Gillian Owen, chair of the Education and Children’s Services Committee explained: “Enabling pupils to learn and develop skills through planning practical projects and seeing those come to life has been shown to help engage young people in an overall positive school experience.
“We’d very much encourage teachers and support staff across the board to consider opportunities to harness the opportunities nature brings.”