It has never been more important to provide a natural space in the school playground for children to play in. Nature offers both benefits and opportunities, but the way we live today means children have very limited access to it. A form of social deprivation that has a lasting effect, it’s a problem where schools can, in some ways, make a difference. Here, we’ll look at what value a nature area can bring to the school playground.
The number one issue facing the human race in the twenty-first century is the environment. The pollution and destruction created by the way we live are having a hugely damaging impact on nature and us. Carbon emissions, toxic engine fumes, industrial leaks, plastic pollution, deforestation, the list goes on. The consequences, of course, are also widespread: global warming and climate change, the loss of natural habitats and extinction, and impoverished health.
Tackling such a global issue is a gargantuan task that needs everyone to understand the issues and, more importantly, change the way they live to become more sustainable. This, however, is harder to do for those whose access to nature is minimal. Nature poverty makes it hard for children to truly appreciate the wonders of the environment: the variety of flora and fauna and their critical role in maintaining fragile ecosystems.
The way children live today makes it difficult for them to spend time with nature, especially those living in urban areas. Few get to play out in green areas as much as their parents did, many don’t have gardens at home and lots of those that do are seeing nature being stripped out to make way for car parking and decking.
A nature area in the school playground which is freely accessible during breaktimes can make a real difference to children’s appreciation and understanding of nature. It will help them learn to value it in a way that makes them want to lead more sustainable lives. At the same time, that area will also provide other benefits: the greenery will improve the local air quality, it will have beneficial effects on the local microclimate and will become a new habitat for plants and wildlife.
A school nature area benefits children in many ways. It’s air-cleansing, oxygen-enriching properties, for example, can make the playground a healthier place to spend time, especially for those schools located near busy roads.
Adding greenery also has mental health benefits. Green is the most calming of colours (its why actors wait in a green room before going on stage) and this can help pupils reduce stress and anxiety and restore a bit of balance after the challenges of the classroom. Indeed, such areas are highly inviting and on warm days, you’ll find groups of children naturally gravitate towards them to enjoy the peaceful experience of just sitting in the sun and mopping up the vista of plants, shrubs and trees around them.
Nature zones are also excellent for more vigorous physical activities. Though you may not want pupils to climb trees and roll down grass bankings (something the National Trust says every child should have experienced by the time they are 11 and ¾), they are perfect places to install natural wood play equipment like climbing frames, Trim Trails and play towers, that blend in perfectly with the area.
Nature areas are also ideal for the outdoor curriculum. They are great places for storytelling circles, offer unlimited opportunities for art classes and are the very best place to investigate the local soil, flora, fauna and weather. They also make the ideal spot to grow those sunflowers and runner beans whose study is a key feature of the primary science curriculum. With such a wide variety of outdoor curriculum equipment available today, a nature area can be a valuable resource for enriching children’s learning.
Creating a school nature area
Many schools already have suitable areas on-site, though not all of them allow children access because they are near to car parks or away from the main playground. Redesigning your outdoor space to provide access and installing or moving fencing to keep children safe from traffic can overcome these often easily solvable problems.
For schools with tarmac playgrounds, landscaping may be needed to remove some of the hard surfacing to create a nature zone in the most suitable place for plant life. Planters and trellises can be used to create the boundaries and internal environment, allowing the installation of living walls and the introduction of small trees, shrubs and a variety of plants. The area can be landscaped and turfed, using grass matting to reduce erosion and to prevent the area from becoming muddy, or if you choose, you can install artificial grass. Though this isn’t real, it will complement the plants and brings the benefits of never getting muddy or needing cutting. The visual result will be more or less the same. The finishing touch will be to add things that encourage wildlife to the area, such as bird tables, butterfly boxes and insect habitats.
Giving children access to nature, especially those who are most likely to be deprived of it, can have enormous benefits. It can change their attitude to sustainability, improve wellbeing and health and help them deal with the pressures of the classroom. For schools too, it offers the ability to improve the school environment for all and provides greater opportunities for an enriched outdoor curriculum.
For more information, visit our Nature and Garden page.