The Importance of Nature in the School Playground

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.

Addressing sustainability

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.

Enriching lives

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.

Conclusion

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.

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The Role of the School Playground in Tackling Climate Change

Climate change is the burning issue of the moment – and rightly so. The impact of human activity on the planet is leading to disastrous consequences for all life forms, including our own. Unfortunately, it is our children and their children who are going to suffer the worst of these effects and if we want to reverse the situation, then we urgently need children to learn about what the causes are and how they can bring around change.

That learning starts in school and one of the best places for it to happen is in the playground. Playing outdoors is vital if children are to start understanding the environment and how to take care of it. Outdoor play encourages children to develop a love and an appreciation of nature, something they seldom get the chance to in today’s screen-obsessed world.

Climate change is already having a devastating impact on young lives. Respiratory infections, due to polluted air and water, are estimated to take the lives of two million under-fives each year. The effects upon weather mean that we are seeing more storms and flooding in some areas and worsening droughts in others. These cause large scale devastation, sometimes with hundreds of thousands of people being made homeless and lacking basic essentials like food, water or shelter, which in turn lead to famine, disease and long-term poverty.

In order to improve the climate, we need to make drastic changes. Although the UK may have committed to being carbon neutral by 2050, this will have no significant impact if the rest of the world doesn’t follow suit. The key to success lies in changing attitudes to climate change and here, society has a critical role to play by exposing children to the wonders of being outside.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of research to show that this is not the case. When away from school, children are increasingly confined indoors and don’t get the opportunity to enjoy unstructured play. There are many reasons for this: fear over the child’s safety, parents too busy working, too much homework, not enough local places to play, the attraction of the internet. While the causes are many, the result is that children begin to see the outdoor world as alien. Unlike their parents did, they don’t go out to play. They don’t climb trees, throw sticks, collect conkers, roll down hills, explore woods and streams or do anything much that links them to nature. The fear is that this lack of connection with the outdoors will make them even less environmentally friendly than the generations that have gone before.

The onus, therefore, is on schools to make up for what society is failing to provide. Thankfully, there is a great deal that schools can do, on a daily basis, to get children learning and playing outdoors.

early years outdoor play

To foster the sheer enjoyment of being outside, break and lunchtimes are best left for unstructured play and there are some fantastic pieces of outdoor playground equipment that can be used to encourage involvement. From sports and games markings to climbing frames and obstacle courses, these are great for encouraging children to have fun in the open air.

It’s not just during breaktimes, however, when the playground can play a part. Many schools are now developing their own outdoor classrooms and there is a wide range of outdoor resources available for all curriculum areas. Indeed, the outdoor learning space has a lot to offer, especially when doing active lessons or work that requires observation of the natural world, such as art, geography and science.

In addition, there has been a big increase in the number of schools providing access to nature areas. More schools are developing on-site ‘forest school’ environments, often using pre-existing grassed or garden areas of the premises. These are then added to with shrubs and trees, trellises, planters, water features, bug houses and bird feeders to give children more experience of the local flora and fauna. Nature areas are extremely popular with children who are not only fascinated with the plants and creatures but who find them peaceful havens in which to get some much-needed time out during the busy school day.

Some schools have begun to start other climate-friendly activities. One which is very popular is the ‘Walk to School Day’, which aims to get children more active and reduce pollution outside the school gates. Run once a week, these often include walking chains where children and parents will pick up classmates on-route so that no-one is left walking alone. Just imagine how much pollution could be cut If every school did this?

Taking part in such initiatives is useful in getting children and their parents to think about the environment and how they can make a positive impact. In doing so, you encourage them to develop a more caring attitude and take ownership of their actions.

early years outdoor play markings

Summing up

The future of the planet lies in the hands of today’s youngsters. If we are to prevent climate change having a catastrophic impact, not only do we need to teach them about how to make the world a better place, we also need to foster the desire to care for it. You can’t do this without giving them access to the outdoors. Only by being outdoors will they develop a sense of awe and wonder at nature. As a school, you have the opportunity to make this happen.

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