Building for the future with The Wilderness Foundation

PUBLISHED: 22:01 19 October 2015 | UPDATED: 14:31 21 October 2015

Students get closer to nature

Students get closer to nature


The Wilderness Foundation, a charity based between Braintree and Chelmsford, is working to help children and adults learn more about nature and its importance in our lives. Essex Life found out more

The fact that the average child in Britain today plays outside only one hour per week is a huge change from generations before, when most children spent the majority of their time outdoors and adults of the time still reminisce about den building, the freedom linked to nature and cops and robbers in the woods.

What we forget too is that many of those nostalgic adults also ate less fast foods, food was bought closer to source, food was limited post war and there was a built-in caution around waste.

The world has changed rapidly in this period to produce some exciting technologies and industry, but as it has, a real problem has arisen in the disconnection of our children today from free play and countryside, but also food and understanding where it comes from and how food and farming really works. Many adults also don’t appreciate how food trade and the economy of food has an effect on a wide range of issues, with the most impactful being world peace. Think of the Arab Spring Rising which was linked to the price increases in bread.

The Wilderness Foundation, a charity based between Braintree and Chelmsford, runs the Chatham Green Project in partnership with Strutt and Parker Farms to tackle these issues. The project enables more than 3,000 children a year to visit their 400-acre Hyde Hall Farm — a working arable farm — to understand food in its entirety. In addition, the project has a strong focus on biodiversity and works to help children understand that there needs to be a balance between nature, farming and people if we are to have a healthy planet that is sustainable for the future.

Amy Sutcliffe, the project manager, is a biologist and is passionate about nature and the outdoors. She has created a raft of curriculum-based topics that support classroom learning in a range of subjects and is creative in how learning can take place in a living classroom in the fresh air.

For example, sitting by the woods in a meadow, overlooking a large arable field, pupils can not only learn about crops, but can also venture into maths to calculate yields and trade prices. They can venture into poetry for English and creative writing, as well as drama in the woods, geography mapping, history and art. The combinations are endless, but all have the same focus — learning linked to understanding how nature and how our needs for food require balance and can coexist if we are mindful how we do it. This helps grow a future generation that can truly understand all the elements necessary for a healthy, sustainable life ahead — not taught with doom and gloom, but with joy, fun and stimulation.

It is certainly something that Shakila Murphy, a teacher at Perryfields Junior School in Chelmsford, has appreciated. ‘Our whole school visited Chatham Green,’ says Shakila. ‘We were looking for a venue which provided a variety of science and geography activities which were not only educational but also engaging. Amy, the education officer, was fantastic. She was obviously knowledgeable, but she was extremely approachable when it came to discussing ideas and accommodating our needs.

‘The activities themselves were spot on and ranged from building bird feeders and orienteering to making seed bombs and bug hunts. The children participated in hands on tasks which were fun and varied, and they learned lots about nature, wildlife and farming.’

Jo Roberts, CEO of the Wilderness Foundation and founder of the project, explains why it is critical to understand nature and the environment experientially. ‘We have such a focus on academic achievement these days, which although understandable, can place a lot of pressure on children. The way we teach and learn here is using a living example of subjects and life, and combines fun with learning. This is more memorable and evidence shows it can touch hearts and minds, and not just brains.’

Other work that the foundation has a wide reputation for is its work with troubled youth and the use of nature therapy to help young people get their lives back on track. With a separate base on site where TurnAround and the OutThere Academy works from, young people learn to respect themselves, others and their environment. Using a range of experiences from bushcraft, games, training in environmental ethics and discovering wild places, measured and positive changes take place and many express real sadness when their times here come to an end. The Wilderness Foundation also works with a range of partners who refer young people, private families who need help and some adults also seeking support.

Family camps, school visits, nature weeks for children and seasonal events all take place on the site at various times of the year. Whatever the event, visits are always about nature and the outdoors, but look to show people how they can benefit from these places too — finding fun, mindfulness and a freer spirit linked to being outside in green space.

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