A project designed to encourage children to appreciate the beauty and diversity of their local park by involving them in an arts-based intervention proved to be an inspiration for those who took part. Dr Jenny Hallam, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, explains how.
In recent years, there has been growing concern surrounding children’s disconnect from nature, increasing levels of screen time and a lack of physical activity. At a national level this is reflected in interventions such as the Nature Friendly Schools initiative, which aims to connect children to nature through outdoor learning. Whilst there is evidence that the curriculum is being delivered more outdoors children in the later years of primary school (aged between 7-11) appear to be missing out.
I recently worked on a project which used youth led, arts-based activities to reconnect 11 young people aged nine and ten years old from a socially disadvantaged area to a park next to their school. The project was run by Urban Wilderness, a not-for-profit organisation which aims to promote wellbeing through creative projects that connect young people and their families to locally-based urban green spaces. During the project, which was funded by the Arts Council and National Lottery Community Fund, young people from a school in Stoke-on-Trent spent three afternoons working with an artist and Urban Wilderness facilitators to co-create a ship sculpture. The sculpture was then exhibited as part a day-long free of charge family festival organised by Urban Wilderness in the park next to the school.
Each session had a different focus. During the first session the young people visited the local park and climbed the hill where the sculpture was to be exhibited. The second session took place in the school fields, and the young people used pencils and watercolour paints to create designs for the ship’s sail. The final session centred on finalising the design for the ship’s sail and using clay to create figureheads for the ship. During the sessions important changes relating to the ways in which the children viewed art and the local space were observed.
Developing a different relationship with the park
Conversations with the young people during the walk to the top of the hill in the first session revealed a growing disconnect from the park and outside activity. Many of the young people commented that they had visited the park regularly with their families when they were younger, but as they got older they visited less frequently and now they only tended to visit for special events, such as the funfair.
However, during the first session of the intervention the young people explored the park and noticed plants, such as elderflowers. This prompted discussion with Urban Wilderness facilitators about foraging opportunities on their doorstep and the space was viewed from a fresh perspective. It also sparked curiosity about the other plant species that were present and led to discussion centreing on plant identification and the folklore associated with plants.
Two of the girls found the flowers particularly inspiring and collected them to be pressed in their sketchbooks. When back at school, the sketchbooks led to conversations with Urban Wilderness facilitators relating to the medicinal qualities of plants and the symbolic use of flowers in Victorian flower language. This provided the basis for the development of flower designs that were incorporated into the ship’s sail design.
For other young people the provision of digital cameras at the start of the walk encouraged close attention to the wildlife and landscape, as they used the cameras to carefully capture and document everything from insects to birds. This resulted in a more active engagement with the park as the young people carefully focused their attention on what could be found there, rather than walking by.
Changing perceptions of art
During the project the young people’s understanding of art was challenged and their confidence in art grew. At the start of the intervention many of the young people felt that art was not for them because it simply involved sitting quietly and drawing. However, the project enabled them to work with several different media and develop a broad range of skills.
For two boys in particular this led to a transformational journey which started with frustration relating to their ability as artists and dissatisfaction with their initial designs. A combination of their persistence, hard work and careful support from the artist and Urban Wilderness facilitators resulted in a growing sense of pride as their designs for woodland creatures and identities as artists developed. One of the boys spoke about how he had been thinking of his designs at home and developing them in his own time.
There was a sense of anticipation from the boys for each session and feelings of achievement as their designs were chosen by the other young people involved in the intervention to play central roles in the ship’s sail and figure head.
Long-term connections to the space
During the family festival it was noted that many of the young people involved in the project returned to see the ship sculpture with their families. Their excitement in seeing their work exhibited and pride in hearing the artist speak about how the young people had co-created the piece was evident. Returning to the park helped the young people develop a new relationship with it and hopefully laid the foundations for a longer-term connection between them and the space. The boys also commented that they hoped that the sculpture would help inspire other children at the school to try art.
Five tips for teachers and parents to encourage outdoor learning:
- Find a natural space within walking distance of your school so children can build a long term and meaningful connection with the space in their own time
- Go for an explore, and give the children cameras and/or notebooks and pencils to record what they find interesting in the natural space
- Follow the children’s interests and learn together about wildlife/plants you find
- Encourage imaginative thinking by suggesting different scenarios ‘imagine you were an explorer discovering a new land’
- Connect experiences in nature with subjects that could enhance their interests, eg. “If you wanted to know more about the different types of birds we could look those up,” or “There are biologists that do this for a job, do you think you’d like to do that?”