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Eating nettles and gazing at clouds: a LEAF reflection

A blog post by Nicola Davidson

After our successful LEAF pilot programme came to an end, Nicola Davidson, our Education and Learning Officer, reflected on the first six months and looks forward to highlighting what future participants can expect to experience.

Pupils at Angus' Borrowfield Primary School toast marshmallows

In January 2023 we launched a new programme as part of our Climate Action Schools framework. The programme, Learning about Forests (LEAF), aims to help children and young people spend more time outside, connecting to nature and learning about our amazing forests. Like Eco-Schools, LEAF is one of five programmes operated internationally by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) and delivered by Keep Scotland Beautiful in Scotland. 

Having struggled with mental health in the past, I know how important a connection to nature is for our mental and physical wellbeing. I wanted to give more children and young people the opportunity to find out those benefits for themselves, and hopefully gain a respect for nature that will encourage them to protect and restore it.

We decided to run a six-month pilot programme to introduce LEAF to educational settings throughout Scotland, with 55 schools and nurseries across 21 local authorities chosen to take part. At the start of the pilot programme, my hopes were to see schools and nurseries working towards the programme aims and hopefully feel the benefits of taking part. However, as the applications started to come in during May and June, I was blown away by the enthusiasm and creativity of the pupils and teachers involved. Schools and nurseries up and down the country have gotten to know the nature on their doorsteps and have taken steps to look after it, often in collaboration with their local communities. Pupils have successfully campaigned to stop their local council using weedkiller in their grounds, they have eaten nettles, made dandelion bread, planted pants (yes really!), created numerous homes for wildlife and taken time to stop and gaze at clouds, flowers and trees.

Chirnside Primary School's edible classroom

Teachers involved in LEAF have reported several benefits from taking part. They have found that pupils developed connections to nature that they did not have before, and that this has led to improvements in educational outcomes, particularly for pupils who have struggled with classroom based learning. Taking part in LEAF has given teachers leverage to expand outdoor learning provision across their school. A significant outcome is that teachers enjoyed their time taking part in LEAF and saw improvements to their own mental health, as well as that of their pupils.

In evaluating the LEAF pilot programme it is clear what makes it so special. LEAF provides a clear structure for schools to expand their outdoor learning and nature connection. The programme has clearly defined steps, but is also highly flexible, so each setting can adapt it to their own individual needs. Activities for a LEAF Award can be done anytime and anywhere. LEAF activities are easily integrated into the school day, with minimal time needed. It is quality of time, not quantity that is important.

LEAF is not another thing for already overstretched educators to squeeze into busy days, but an opportunity to do things in a different way, with benefits for pupils, educators and local communities.

All you need is the willingness to go outside and take some time to slow down and notice the nature around you. And while you're there, maybe think about what you can do to give nature a helping hand.

We are now ready to launch LEAF to more schools across the country. LEAF will be an annual programme, following the school year, so if you want to take part, please complete our registration form by the beginning of October. We will be limited in the number of schools we can enrol, so register early to avoid disappointment.

As the first full year of LEAF in Scotland commences, I am feeling hopeful for the future of the incredible nature we have in Scotland. It is time to learn that people are a part of nature, not separate from it, and we are all in need of connection to the natural world. Why not try spending five minutes today taking in the natural world with all your senses and see if you can feel the benefits our LEAF schools are seeing for yourself?

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