Interview - Jim Burt

Laura Marcus
Monday, March 21, 2016

Principal advisor, Outdoor Learning and Outdoors for All Programmes, Natural England

What does Natural England’s latest report tell us about how children access the natural environment?

Since 2009, Natural England has been running a survey on adults – ‘Monitor the Engagement with the Natural Environment’. We decided to conduct similar research with children to better understand the motivations, barriers and scale of their visits to the outdoors. So additional questions were asked of adults about the children in their households.

By the end of the two-year pilot, information had been gathered on visits taken by more than 10,000 children. These findings give us a far better understanding of the frequency of children’s visits to the outdoors, the types of places they like to visit, the activities they most like to do and who has enabled the trip – their parents, a community group or themselves.

The survey found that 88 per cent of all children in England, around nine million, visited the natural environment in the preceding 12 months and 70 per cent of children, or seven million, visited the natural environment at least once a week over the same period. However, around 12 per cent of all children in England had never visited the natural environment in the previous 12 months.

What are the most important factors determining under-fives’ access to the natural environment?

Adults are important mediators of children’s visits. Play was the main reason given by adults for visits with children to the natural environment. Other frequently cited reasons included getting fresh air (40 per cent), spending time with family (35 per cent), relaxing and unwinding (25 per cent) and doing something physically active (24 per cent).

The results also highlight the influence of household income on the opportunities that children have to experience the natural environment. This just reinforces how important it is that we continue to work to ensure people from all backgrounds have greater access to the outdoors.

The report also highlights the importance of local green space such as parks or nature reserves to all children – especially those who visit less frequently.

How can the results inform intervention in children’s health, wellbeing and outdoor learning?

Schools and early years settings provide a gateway to enable us to help more children to benefit from experiences in natural environments in a supported way: for example, the Natural Connections Demonstration Project has been working with schools in the South West to understand how to embed outdoor learning into school practice – and we are now developing a new demonstration project for delivery in East London that will build on these lessons and work with both primary schools and children’s centres to enable play and learning in local green space.

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