Bring nature into the classroom


For many urban schools, getting students out to experience nature can be tricky. However, nature can also be brought into the classroom. Simon Birbeck offers some ideas.

Environmental sustainability and ecology themes are built into school curriculums, but how much opportunity do students have to get hands-on? What is the balance between working with nature and working on computers, text books or electronic whiteboards?

UK conservation charity the John Muir Trust believes that positive interaction with the natural world goes hand-in-hand with protecting it. Their hands-on environmental scheme, the John Muir Award, encourages all ages to connect, enjoy and care for the environment, and to take responsibility for wild places in a spirit of fun and adventure. The award centres around four themes: to discover, explore, conserve and share.

These themes highlight the scope of benefits and skills that can be accessed by working with the environment. Nature studies are not restricted to science and geography lessons, but can be embedded into other subject areas. For example a local woodland could be used as a stimulus for creative writing or music, sharing ideas to conserve the woodland with the wider community ties in with citizenship, and printing with the veins of a leaf could underpin an art lesson.

Nature as a classroom resource

Engaging with nature during the school day may seem like a chore at first, and urban schools face additional challenges, with wilderness areas less accessible and potentially hazardous. 

So when getting outside the classroom is tricky, how can we offer more exposure to nature without adding to existing pressures? The answer is simple: if you can’t get outside, bring nature in.

  • Use the swaying trees outside as a stimulus for dance or drama performances.

  • Ask students to hunt for insects in the room, logging the species they discover and exploring how they interact. 

  • Set group projects to explore the social life of spiders, or monitor how long it takes to build a web.

  • Introduce art students to macro-photography or sketch insect-life in the room.

  • Growing pot plants in your classroom puts endless opportunities for experiential learning at your fingertips. Asking students to bring in pots from home, cultivate clippings or grow plants from seed can enhance their willingness to engage. 

  • Media studies groups could film and edit the life of a fast-growing species, such as a banana plant, or the decay of a bunch of flowers. 

  • Geography classes could expose plants to different levels of light, mimicking the canopy and shrub layers of a rainforest.

  • Biology groups could investigate whether a plant can survive on lemon juice or fizzy drinks, or examine carnivorous species like Venus fly traps.

Furthermore, with a little more effort, interactive nature displays could become a feature of your classroom. Theme-based nature exhibits could focus on modern foreign languages or arts topics such as colour and shape, or science studies of the animal world. 

Students bring in their own finds and update the display on an on-going basis with items like shells from a summer holiday or an animal skull found on the school grounds. 

Touch tanks or bug zoos create mini-habitats for investigating eco-systems, which could also be used as a stimulus for story-telling in English, while symmetry and patterns could be used as the focus for a maths investigation.

Create a hydroponic garden to investigate how things grow without soil. Link this to ecology studies or sustainability lessons which consider the challenges and opportunities we may face in the future.

Nature journals are a simple idea for cross-curricular nature projects: design and make a book in art from natural materials, create recycled paper in a geography lesson about sustainable living, and use the book to record insect interactions in biology or write poetry about recycling in English.

Lunchtime presents immeasurable opportunities for establishing links between healthy living and the natural world. Growing edible herbs or cress on a classroom window can be a real eye-opener for some students. If you can access an outside area to grow vegetables, even better – creating an opportunity which children living in flats or homes without access to gardens may not have. 

Encouraging students to take greater interest in what they eat is an easy way to deepen their understanding and respect for nature. Try cutting a carrot in half to see if the cross section reveals its age or freezing a banana and finding out why it turns brown. How we dispose of food is essential when learning about conservation, so create a school compost bin too.

Creating opportunities for non-curricular engagement is important too. Students should have the opportunity to view nature as a source of relaxation and fun, and be able to engage with the living world in their own time. How great would it be to see students choosing to water plants, tend to the school garden or feed a class pet rather than texting or playing computer games?

  • Simon Birbeck is education manager at Kingswood Outdoor Education and Activity Centres.

Further information
The John Muir Award:


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