Reconnecting children with nature

A ground-breaking research partnership is hoping to reinvigorate children’s connections with nature through the exciting use of stories.

There has been increasing awareness of children’s disengagement with formalised physical education and an acknowledgement that many also lack a strong connection with nature – issues that are compounded by the rise of smart devices, digital games, and social networking.

To help understand these trends and develop an approach to counter them, University of Exeter PhD student Philip Waters has teamed up with the Eden Project, an educational charity based in Cornwall.

Eden has supported Philip in the developed of a new method of story-making called ‘Narrative Journey’ – an approach which aims to enhance youngsters’ relationships with the natural environment and encourage physical activity outdoors.

Working closely with one of Cornwall’s pioneering independent educators, Zelda School, the project has also used an intriguing method of data collection.

“We’ve gained a remarkable first-hand look into how children behave in the natural environment.”

By mounting a series of cameras around Zelda School – including on children’s chests – the study has captured incredible detail about the way kids move and play. This novel method of data collection is allowing the team to assess the effects of Narrative Journey on behaviour, and gain a rare insight into play from a child’s perspective.

Philip believes this viewpoint has been fundamental to the success of the study, he says “We’ve gained a remarkable first-hand look into how children behave in the natural environment. We’re hoping that Narrative Journey could help children get more ‘hands on’ with nature, encouraging them to move in all sorts of ways that they might not have done in formalised P.E. and sport.”

One of the ways in which Narrative Journey encourages movement and interactions with the environment is by giving objects such as trees ‘action potential’. For example, by describing a tree as ‘climbable’ practitioners can plant the seeds of an interaction without explicitly describing it.

“Phil’s research has taught us a lot about what it’s like to be a child in the outdoor environment.”

The study has also provided important insights for those working with children. Head Teacher at Zelda School, Zelda Astley said: “Phil’s research has taught us a lot about what it’s like to be a child in the outdoor environment. It’s influenced the way we’ve developed our play areas and helped us to step back and view a situation from the child’s point of view before intervening.”

Home to the largest indoor rainforest on Earth, the Eden Project uses storytelling to engage visitors with their messages. With very little evidence available to inform their approach, Eden is hoping to use this study’s analysis to inform their teaching programme.

Jane Knight, Lead Architect at the Eden Project, explained: “We’re always looking at new ways to engage children with the natural world, so we’re really interested in a detailed analysis of ‘Narrative Journeys’. We’re hoping to put some of the findings into practice on site here at Eden, but also incorporate them into our national and international outreach activities.”