Top tips for engaging pupils with nature

Steven Lewis-Neill

Steven Lewis-Neill is passionate about teaching and learning about the natural world. As the owner of WildWorkshops and the creator of the Eco Explorer outdoor learning platform much, of his work is to do with connecting children with nature. Steven also works as a freelance science consultant and delivers CPD sessions across the north-west for the Science Learning Network. Having left his role as KS2 teacher and Science coordinator to complete an MSc in Animal Behaviour, he now works in hundreds of schools across the country and is in a unique position – when it comes to engaging children with nature - to see what works. 


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Originally published on 29 September 2015 Originally published on 29 September 2015

Young children are innately curious about the natural world. At Primary level, the new focus on Plants and Animals in the local environment is long overdue, and for many children this connection begins with a Minibeast topic in Foundation Stage or Year 1.

Working with animals can fulfill so many areas of the EYFS framework. Even something as simple as counting legs on woodlice or beetles provides children with opportunities to develop and improve their skills in counting, as well as understanding and using numbers. It is surprising how many children will spend their next playtime searching for minibeasts after such a lesson! ‘Forming positive relationships and respect for others’ includes all living things, and this is an inherent part of this hands-on learning.

Answer: 14                                                                                Answer: 6

Young children are always taught to respect the creatures they are working with. Any ‘accidents’ are usually Foundation Stage children who haven’t mastered delicate enough motor skills. There are rarely any deliberate squashers. A Reception child will hold anything without fear, but by Year 6 this is not always the case. Children are primed to pick up non-verbal signals from trusted adults, and it is amazing how many children will opt-out of handling a creature if they detect their teacher is not so keen.

Many teachers are great (and brave) actors. Reception children love this topic, and despite my earlier efforts, my own child’s interest was only truly ignited when taught with his friends!

Schools are paying more attention to their outdoor environment: bug hotels are very popular (but can look like fly tipping) and forest schools are everywhere now. Speaking of their new plans for an ‘Outdoor Learning zone’ for next year’s exhibition, Education Innovation research found that ‘schools are looking for innovative solutions to inspire classes outdoors’. There are certainly a plethora of companies willing to sell outdoor equipment and landscaping at eye-watering prices, but a few logs, some wildflower seed and enthusiastic teachers is often all that is required.

There is much empirical research highlighting benefits of working outdoors. As babies I would take my children out into the garden when they were upset, and the soothing effect was instant, but as a teacher I know that taking a class outside is not always practical or possible. If there are any obstacles to stop you taking your class out (eg bit muddy, need to do that Literacy lesson while you have the books) it’s not going to happen.

A school’s grounds are often their largest untapped resource, but Juliet Robertson, owner of Creative STAR, blogger, author and all round outdoor advocate has the attitude spot on: “I am not an ‘outdoor learning expert’. I’m an ordinary teacher who experiments with possibilities.”

With advances in technology and the boom in mobile devices, it is easier than ever to take learning outside. Using mobile devices as a tool to record sounds, videos, images and data is perfect for Science work.

Apps such as Skitch can label photos, particularly good if children have to use an identification key beforehand. Slo-Pro can record videos in slow motion – incredible for bees and jumping frogs!

YouTube link


Though the aim is to engage young children – not with computers – but with nature, they certainly have a role. As Richard Louv, the author who coined the phrase "nature deficit disorder" suggests:

"The best preparation for the twenty-first century may be a combination of natural and virtual experience." In order to tackle large-scale environmental challenges, future generations need to develop a strong relationship with nature, and also need to be equipped with cutting edge skills to devise innovative solutions. Wonder and curiosity are required to become a professional astronomer, and it's also necessary to know how to use high-tech instruments. The next time you take a hike, bring along your smartphone, and use it to explore and connect more deeply with all the magic that nature provides."

Digital microscopes are essential for schools and I don’t know how it is possible to teach some topics without one. Minibeasts are called that for a reason, and children love to see them look like giants. The Dino-Lite range is not cheap, but being small and hand-held they can be manoeuvred inside bug tubs and are crystal clear on even the largest whiteboard screen. Turn a snail upside down and watch it unravel on the big screen - children’s eyes pop out almost as far as the snail’s! The school may only need to invest in one (approx £300) and install the drivers on all computers. Visualisers are more commonplace, and they too are useful in allowing the whole class to see a choice chamber demonstration (even old OHP’s were good for watching silhouettes of minibeasts troop over to the damp area). On the internet, sites such as, a stock of old BBC Wildlife footage, enable you to instantly watch videos of that ladybird larva you found on the playground.

Microscope image of butterfly on whiteboard.

There is no doubt that a close relationship with an animal can have on a positive impact on a child’s well being. The wonderful work done by Critterish Allsorts – a pet therapy provider - can attest to that. Despite this, class pets are rare and, save for an attractive fish tank in the foyer, children do not often have long term relationships with creatures in school. Health & Safety issues and risk assessments usually put paid to any possible encounter. A pair of class mice can have babies that are full grown in a half term and, as a change from chicks and caterpillars, the children could experience a mammalian life cycle and the role of a mother! Books such as Classroom Critters and the Scientific Method by Sally Kneidel give interesting ideas for in-class investigations that you can do with mice and other small animals.

There are some incredible teachers who do a great deal to promote nature in their school. They push for the creation of ponds and wild areas and spend their break times with children planting and gardening. They are the champions. Passionate and creative teachers can really make a difference.

As we enter the earth’s 6th period of mass extinction (for the first time brought about by human activity), our children will oversee great changes in the world around them. If they are not engaged with nature, if they do not understand it, why would they want to save it?

Do you bring nature into your pupils’ learning? Share your experiences below.

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