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Education for sustainability: Connecting learners with nature

David Cudworth, Associate Professor at De Montfort University

Education has become an increasingly important part of the international agenda to raise awareness of how we can support action to shape a more sustainable way of life (Rieckmann, 2012). Enshrined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) many universities are well placed to take a leading role in cementing sustainability as a significant strategic focus (IAU, 2010). However, knowledge that incorporates action and personal pro-environmental transformation is often difficult when teaching takes place indoors (Collado, Rosa, & Corraliza, 2020).

As an ex-primary school teacher, I have always been interested in engaging children with the natural world – not only in terms of developing their motivations to learn and their health and mental wellbeing (Kuo, Browning, Sachdeva, Lee, & Westphal, 2018) but as a space in (re)connecting them with nature (Foster & Linney, 2007). By (re)connecting learners with nature, they are more likely to develop an emotional connection with their wider environment which can lead to the development of sustainable attitudes (Mackay & Schmitt, 2019).

Since moving into academia, I have sought opportunities to take learning outside for my university students. The purpose of this blog is to provide details of how one undergraduate education studies programme is supporting students’ awareness of sustainability and (re)connecting them to nature by exploring the dynamics of forest school (FS).

In recent years, FS has grown in popularity in the UK (Knight, 2013). One of the fundamental aims of FS is to nurture and develop children’s innate curiosity to explore natural environments and connect with nature. As many of our students go on to initial teaching training programmes after they graduate, I wanted to offer them a more practical module that related to this growing phenomenon. In order to provide such a module, it was important for me to train as an FS leader – I have since built up links with the FS community and published articles in this area.

The emphasis of the 15-credit module is on practical engagement and takes place during a 12-week term consisting of weekly two-hour workshops. The first introductory session is used to familiarise the students with the SDGs and FS. Throughout the module I introduce students to the increasing literature of the benefits of FS with particular reference to nature connection and environmental stewardship. In order for students to experience these ideas and the benefits themselves, a number of the sessions utilise outdoor spaces. Students get involved in playing games, building shelters, creating art from natural materials, appreciating trees, using tools to make artefacts, fire-lighting and simple cookery.

‘The emphasis of the 15-credit module is on practical engagement… Students get involved in playing games, building shelters, creating art from natural materials, appreciating trees, using tools to make artefacts, fire-lighting and simple cookery.’

As part of the module, students are also expected to undertake an FS placement in a local primary school, which places great importance on enabling children to develop a relationship with the outdoors. According to the headteacher, the school is keen for all children to experience nature by ‘being’ in it and experiencing it first-hand:

‘You do get concerned that they [children] become dislocated from the world and you do worry … they have lost that sense of how the seasons work and so on … Unless you sense it, and you feel it and know it, then you are dislocated from the environmental impact we have as human beings and our relationship with it. You have got to understand that relationship.’

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is about (re)connecting students with nature by providing opportunities to experience learning outside. As an FS leader told me, ‘the world we live in is highly artificial and prized above the natural… We’re seeing apocalyptic reports of the environment and these things are linked. I just think that FS is a way of fighting back against that.’


Beery, T. H. (2013). Nordic in nature: Friluftsliv and environmental connectedness, Environmental Education Research, 19(1), 94–117.

Collado, S., Rosa, C. D., & Corraliza, J. A., (2020). The effect of a nature-based environmental education program on children’s environmental attitudes and behaviors: A randomized experiment with primary schools. Sustainability, 12(17), 1–12.

Foster, A., & Linney, G. (2007). Reconnecting children through outdoor education. Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario.

International Association of Universities [IAU]. (2010). Annual report 2010.

Knight, S. (2013). International perspectives on Forest School. SAGE.

Kuo, F., Browning, M., Sachdeva, S., Lee, K., & Westphal, L. (2018). Might school performance grow on trees? Examining the link between ‘greenness’ and academic achievement in urban, high-poverty schools. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 109–114.

Mackay, C. M. L., & Schmitt, M. T. (2019). Do people who feel connected to nature do more to protect it? A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 65.  

Mortimer, S. (2017). Transforming the student-learning experience: The Triple-V model of experiential learning, Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, 7(4), 337–353.

Rieckmann, M., (2012). Future-orientated higher education: Which key competencies should be fostered through university teaching and Learning? Futures, 44, 127–135.