In 2022, mental health researcher Zoe Moula and colleagues reviewed all the literature they could find on the benefits of children engaging with art while spending time in nature. Although thousands of articles covered either arts or nature, only eleven touched on the overlap between the two. “I was definitely surprised,” says Moula, a lecturer at King’s College London. “I was expecting more work in that area.” After all, arts and nature are both associated with increased wellbeing in children, so combining them seemed obvious. The review found that children felt more connected to nature through making art in a natural environment, but warned that the findings “should be interpreted with caution” given the small number of studies and variations in study quality.

Learning to thrive
Supporting children to thrive in a challenging and changing climate

The Eco-Capabilities project, which Moula was involved in, was one of the eleven studies that looked at both nature and art. It started as a collaboration between education researcher Nicola Walshe from University College London and the charity Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination, which brings artists into schools to engage with children. “Every Monday for eight weeks, seven- to ten-year-old children would spend the entire day outside in nature, accompanied by an artist and their teachers who guided them through art activities,” explains Moula. For example, children might listen to birdsong and then create a map showing where they had heard the sounds. The activities require little previous experience with making art, so there is a relatively low barrier for children to take part.

“This arts-in-nature approach can lead to discussions about nature, climate change, and sustainability.”

This arts-in-nature approach can lead to discussions about nature, climate change, and sustainability. “We don’t force these conversations,” Moula adds. “All we do is provide activities that can motivate participants to start thinking about these topics.”

Combined arts and nature activities might engage more children than either could separately. Moula noticed that some children were initially uncomfortable in nature but found the arts appealing, while others loved being outdoors but were less keen on arts. Combining activities provides more opportunities to draw children in.

What is the impact of engaging in art activities in nature?

Researchers use a variety of methods to determine the benefits of art in nature, such as standardised surveys that measure wellbeing. Moula has used surveys tailored specifically to children – asking, for example, how things are going at school. But to evaluate the eight-week Eco-Capabilities project, Moula took a more creative approach and analysed children’s drawings of their “happy place”. Of the 97 children who submitted a drawing before the project, only 5 prominently featured plants and animals. But when 88 pupils completed the same exercise after the project, 26 now featured elements of nature. “That was completely unexpected,” says Moula. “We had hoped that there would be some increase, but we didn’t expect that when children draw their happy place, nature would be prominent in so many of the drawings.”

A child’s drawing after taking part in the Eco-Capabilities project, taken from the paper.

Moula believes that by encouraging children to feel more at home in nature and comfortable discussing climate and the environment, arts-in-nature practices can also help children cope with climate anxiety. “One of the really important outcomes of this project was the sense of agency and empowerment that it gave the children we worked with,” says Moula. “They’re realising the power that they hold in terms of making changes to prevent future environmental disasters.” However, Moula points out that the goal is not to eliminate eco-anxiety, as it is a healthy response, but to manage it better.

Although few arts-in-nature approaches have been systematically studied so far, the practice is not uncommon. Many wildlife trusts and nature parks host events on weekends and holidays to encourage children to engage with art in nature. 

“Moula’s advice is to combine being outdoors with other parts of the curriculum.”

Running arts-in-nature events as a school activity is also an opportunity to get families involved. “A couple of weeks after taking children to a nature reserve near their school, we asked them what they had done over the weekend,” says Moula. “A significant number of them told us that they had gone to this very same space with their families.”

Of course, many educators would struggle to find time to take children out of the classroom while still meeting all curriculum demands. Moula’s advice is to combine being outdoors with other parts of the curriculum, such as biology. It’s also possible to do this in city schools, as long as there is an opportunity to take children outside. That could even mean finding a way to bring nature into the school playground, Moula says. “Nature is everywhere.”

Explore our ‘Learning to thrive’ materials, which are full of ideas for engaging young people in discussions and activities about their relationship with, and connections to, the natural world around them.

Keep up to date with the BOLD newsletter