Learning Outdoors in London

May 27, 2021, by Emily Dixon, AccessHE London Programmes & Communications Coordinator

How long did everyone spend dreaming of spring this year? After the coldest temperatures the UK has had for twenty-five years in the first quarter of 2021, and lockdown helping it feel like one of our longest winters, we have reached the warmer weather at last. The British public seem excited to be outside their homes again whether they are in pub beer gardens, park picnics, zoos or outdoor cinemas.

A good proportion of the coverage of the benefits of getting outdoors focuses on children and young people. More studies and publications than I could ever cite here have reported on the positives of learning outdoors – from mental health to physical health to overall levels of satisfaction with life. The University of California, Berkeley, has created this summary of research on the many benefits on learning of time spent in nature. Young people now are coming out of a year in ‘suspended animation’, where for large stretches of time they may have barely managed an hour outdoors per day. Lockdown has prevented young people from developing independence and spending time growing their maturity, responsibility and decision-making skills out of the house.

From a higher education perspective, the benefits of access to green space cut across all specialisms, subjects and skill areas. These benefits cover mental health, fitness and wellbeing themes, as well as creativity and subject knowledge for the likes of biology and geography. The outdoors could be where a future biologist meets a caterpillar for the first time, where an aspiring photographer gets the key idea for their portfolio, or where a calming walk helps a student deal with stress mid-coursework. Time away from screens and out of stuffy bedrooms stretching the nation’s legs benefits every learner, but access to it is not distributed equitably. Who is able to access the pastoral and academic benefits of spending time outdoors?

The issue of learning outdoors in London leads us to different places than in the rest of the country. Londoners rely on public parks more than other Britons because of their much smaller chance of having a private garden; the nine council areas in the UK with the lowest proportion of private garden access are all in London. So London’s 3,000 parks, canals and public outdoor areas take on increased importance. The Mayor of London’s office proudly reports that a higher percentage of London is covered by parks than it is by railways and roads combined. There is certainly a lot of green space around the city, but getting to it and being able to freely and frequently spend time there is not always straightforward.

London Boroughs are far from equal in terms of access to green space, public or private. If we compare Southwark’s 610 total acres of public parkland to the 2,500 acres of just the largest of 100 parks in Richmond-upon-Thames, we realise that curious children in search of bugs and trees for climbing will have a different experience depending on their home borough. These two boroughs will have different levels of biodiversity in their parks, where Southwark parks are more likely to be small and close to roads and associated pollution. Income and ethnicity are both major determiners of access to green space in the capital. The people who live nearest the most green space in London are most likely to be white and wealthy.

The British Children’s Play Survey, the largest British survey covering children’s play habits, recently found that the age at which children are allowed to spend unsupervised time playing outdoors has risen by nearly two years in just one generation. The average age at which children are allowed to play outdoors on their own has risen to 10.7 years, whereas for their parents’ generation it was under 8 years. We also know that lower income families are less likely to have the free time to take children on trips to discover the great outdoors, which is likely to result in children spending more time indoors. This raises the issue of whether British children, particularly lower income British children, are becoming less comfortable with decision-making, risk assessment and ‘what to do outdoors’ over time. The pandemic is in danger of increasing the pace of this change even more.

What can widening participation do about this? University access budgets can’t stretch to building everyone a garden, probably. But for younger learners in urban environments particularly, we can try to bear in mind the positive impact opportunities to get outdoors can have on all subjects and areas of mental wellbeing. We can use and be inspired by free resources for young learners by conservation organisations such as the Woodland Trust, and projects that bring opportunities to interact with wildlife to learners such as the Royal Veterinary College’s Animal Aspirations. We can also consider the example that has been set by some organisations in the USA doing targeted work with BAME and lower income young people from urban areas with little access to the benefits of being in nature. One of these is Black Outside, which provides opportunities to experience nature to Black youth in San Antonio and has a positive impact on skills development in the schools they’ve worked with.

In a capital city where students look out across very different landscapes from their bedroom windows, thoughtful and accessible pushes towards the benefits of being outdoors can have a transformative impact on young people who have been cooped up indoors for a year. The national conversation about ‘catch up’ is very focused on extended school days indoors, worrying Ofsted ratings and additional tutoring, we can continue to bear in mind the benefits of play and exploration in the fresh air. We already know that lockdown and its aftermath are creating one of the biggest mental health challenges young people have ever faced, and there is no magic bullet solution. There is no simple way to redraw the map of green space distribution in London that will guarantee happiness and success to every resident because it would quite literally mean rebuilding the city. If you or your organisation has any strategies or projects looking at bringing the outdoors to London’s young people, we at AccessHE would love to hear about them in the comments, or you can contact us by email at accesshe@londonhigher.ac.uk or find us on Twitter @accesshe. We would love to hear your thoughts!