A story by The Conservation Volunteers
Nature Explorers programme provided fun outdoor opportunities for families with children and young people with disabilities during school holidays.
Parents/carers get a break whilst children enjoy accessible, sensory based activities at a range of outdoor countryside/heritage sites.
What Nature Explorers did
141 children & 124 carers took part in The Nature Explorers project (nature based sessions over school holidays in 4 local authorities). The Conservation Volunteers worked in partnership with Seaview Children’s Respite Unit and Friends of Seaview Garden Trust, PLUS Forth Valley & Elgin Park Centre, Deaf Action, Borders Additional Needs Group (BANG) and Lothian Autistic Society, to design and develop 20 nature engagement sessions in woodlands, parks and green spaces.
Partner organisations, were identified through a pilot project and word of mouth, then signposted beneficiaries to sessions. Sessions were flexible: carers could take part or choose to take a break. Many carers took part in sessions as they enjoyed playing with the children and learning new activities. Carers were able to participate, dip in and out and engage with other parents and carers also in attendance.
Activities took place in local green spaces and included nature-based craft activities, wildlife and plant ID, sensory activities using natural materials & wellbeing activities such as nature walks and mindfulness.
Nature Explorers met BB priority areas: Complex Needs children participating in NE programme experience a variety of disabilities including sensory impairment, learning difficulties, mobility problems, autism and more. The Conservation Volunteers ensured the programme was accessible and enjoyable for all with a flexible approach and involving a large number of partner staff to ensure all participants are supported.
Active Leisure – Our programme encouraged beneficiaries to get active in the outdoors, which had a positive impact on participants’ health and wellbeing.
Independence – Parents and carers were given the opportunity to choose to take a break from caring or participate in activities. This offered a level of independence and self-determination to both parents/carers and children.
The Conservation Volunteers had planned to run final sessions over the Easter Break. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 this was not possible. So instead developed 6 outdoor activity packs inspiring families to do creative activities in their gardens/local green spaces. The activity packs were very positively received by beneficiaries.
What The Conservation Volunteers has learned
Partnership working (designing sessions and evaluation), partnership working was invaluable when delivering the Nature Explorers programme. We worked closely with the partners form the start, they knew the families and individuals and we were able to design sessions to fit the needs of participants.
Partners were really good at capturing feedback from families whilst we were running activities. In future we would work more closely with partners to design and capture feedback from carers and children. The partners were also great at passing on resources to families and passing on our evaluation questionnaire following the outbreak of COVID-19 where sessions were cancelled.
Partnership working (targeting families most in need of support), partner organisations were able to signpost families to outdoor sessions. Partner organisations could signpost families that they felt would benefit from outdoor sessions the most. Outdoor sessions appealed to families who wouldn’t always engage with partner organisations, The outdoor sessions was something different and appealed to families. Those that attended could receive support and ask questions of the partner organisations whilst engaging with outdoor activities.
Needs of families, carers/parents had the choice whether they would like to participate in the activities, or take a break from their caring responsibilities. We learned that the majority of carers really enjoyed joining in the activities with their children together. This provided valuable time for families to spent together without the pressure of having to come up with things to do.
Caring responsibilities lessened when sessions were planned and there were extra staff to support. Carers/parents and children had fun and learned about creative nature-based activities together, which provides them with a new set of accessible and inclusive activities and ideas for their caring role even outside our organised activities.
How The Conservation Volunteers has benefitted from the funding
Developing new partnerships or links, through Better Breaks funding we were able to build on relationships and establish new links with partner organisations. we have developed strong links with partners who have emphasised the need for outdoor sessions for children with disabilities, their carers and families. We are in the process of identifying and securing future funding opportunities to continue working with partners and families where it is most needed. We engaged with new organisations in the Scottish Borders which was a new location for us, we developed links with organisations in the Borders which we will maintain and develop further projects. Through word of mouth, new partners were identified for future work which we couldn’t meet the needs of with Better Breaks/current funding alone. We have established new connections and partners and will continue to locate funding for a larger scale project across Scotland. COVID-19 response, we engaged with groups face to face in outdoor locations, due to the outbreak of COVID-19 this was not possible with many of our projects. Through Better Breaks flexibility we were able to create resources and engage with families in a different way at a tie they needed it most. The feedback from creating and sharing the resources was positive and it has made us think about how we deliver in the future. Having complementary activity packs would support families to take their learning and use it independently.
Children enjoyed a regular programme of exciting activities, explored & learned about a wonderful range of countryside/heritage sites. We expect our Nature Explorers to feel more confident, more excited about wild places and full of enthusiasm to get out and explore on their own or with their family.
64 children took part in 20 activity sessions- learning, skills and developing confidence and friendships. Activities such as nature crafts (with flowers, clay & willow weaving) nature activities (foraging, pond dipping, fire building & bug ID); and conservation (beach cleaning & bug house building, and sensory/messy play. We shared 6 activities for families at home during the COVID 19 lockdown. Participants enjoyed creative activities, and the positive benefits of being outdoors. Partners said children learned new skills, new interests and had so much fun playing in and exploring nature together. “The children and young people enjoyed the outdoors. After activities, we gave them some free time to play themselves. In many ways this was the best time, seeing them relax, enjoy being in nature and beginning to play together socially which is rare to see given the complex disabilities of these children.”
This case study was devised using testimony from a parent of a young girl with severe epilepsy, autism, a profound learning disability and mobility problems. The parent expressed that the lockdown is an immensely difficult time for her family due to her daughter’s health. Even before lockdown, her daughter would often sit in the same spot in the house most of the time, rather than walking or going outside due to her mobility problems – an issue which has increased drastically since having to shield during lockdown. The parent received regular Conservation Volunteer activities (videos and activity sheets) sent from one of our partner organisations, and the ‘building a bug hotel’ the activities has had a particularly positive effect on her daughter. “She benefited because it gave her something interesting to see and think about, and was so easy it gave me a great idea of something to do with her and talk to her about. We will be able to look at it when we go out of the house which will help me to encourage her to go outside as she doesn't like to move from her settee. She loves bugs and it will be something that will motivate her to go outside much more.”
"My kids really enjoyed the workshop this Summer. We went to a hidden quarry we never knew existed it was a really interesting day out. My 10 year old got an introduction to geology and enjoyed getting the freedom to scramble up and around the rocks looking for clues to the rock quiz"
Families benefited hugely from activities in the outdoors. The testimony from partners and participants provides evidence of the many positive outcomes of this programme, including the development new interests, skills and knowledge for both parents/carers and children/young people, opportunities to socialise with friends and like minded people in a positive setting, and providing positive benefits to wellbeing due to being in nature. As one partner shares: “We are impressed with The Conservation Volunteers knowledge of Nature and Outdoors. Young people benefit from this because they can learn new skills and learn about nature & outdoors.” Another partner states: "The Conservation Volunteers encouraged people to be with Nature and in the outdoors so it's had a great impact on wellbeing. They encouraged young people to go outdoors and be active for example by walking, communicating with friends, learning new things. It's a great wellbeing organisation.”
The Case study provided in Outcome 2 also offers great insight into the positive impact our programme has had to the wellbeing of both children and young people with disabilities and their parents. In taking part in pond-dipping, a new and previously unknown activity, the parent whose story was shared gained an opportunity to connect with nature in a unique way, which helped develop a new hobby to do alongside his child. The parent shared that he will now spend more time outdoors reeking the positive benefits of nature alongside his child, offering a huge positive boost in wellbeing to both.
Carers will have opportunities to take a break from caring at home & enjoy time with children-having fun, making friends and trying something new. Parents will be better connected, make friends, feel less isolated and be aware of opportunities and support available to them.
Throughout the programme, we offered the parents and carers of participants the choice to take part, or to take a break during the time of the activity. The overwhelming majority of parents and carers chose to take part most of the time as they themselves found activities to be fun, enjoyable and stimulating. Parents/carers also benefited from being together and sharing experiences. Significantly, parents expressed that during sessions they were able to sit back and relax as other adults were present to keep children and young people engaged in a positive activity. Further, the activities we facilitated served as inspiration to parents and carers for activities they will be able to do alongside their children at home and in their own time.
One Nature Explorers session in partnership with Deaf Action served as a particularly memorable experience to a parent. The session took place in a local park where the group participated in pond-dipping. Water from the pond was gathered on a white tray, where everyone was able to see and identify various species living in ponds. One parent of a deaf child had never done this before, but was particularly fascinated by the activity. He eagerly shared all he learned with his deaf child and later reported they had done the same activity at a different local park in their own time, and it had become a hobby for them to do together! The activity benefited the parent by enjoying time in nature, offering new learning as well as connecting with their child through the outdoors.
Nature Explorers’ Carers will be more aware of opportunities and support available to them through networking with a range of families as well as partner staff and volunteers. They will feel less isolated and have more confidence to access and explore countryside and historic sites on their own.
Carers said they felt supported throughout the Nature Explorers programme both during sessions and receiving activity packs during lockdown. One partner explained: “Parents got involved in the activities and loved it. We introduced them to woodland spaces that they will access again with their families”. Sessions offered a chance for carers to relax and rest assured their children are safe and have the opportunity to play/explore with friends in nature, while they sit back, enjoy the opportunity to take part in activities themselves, and be inspired by the outdoors. When asked if the project benefited carers and children, one partner organisation responded: “Hugely. Our reason for being is to support children and young people with disabilities and their families. This project introduced the children to a new environment, new sensory experiences and space also for the parents to join in the fun and relax in the outdoors.”
We will use this opportunity to repeat our case study shared in Outcome 1. Lockdown continues to be a difficult time not only for children and young people with disabilities, but also for their carers and parents. As children spend most of their time in the house, it becomes increasingly difficult for carers to remain motivated and creative with things to do that keep children learning, engaging with nature and having fun. The activities we developed and shared provided great support to parents and carers in offering a fun and creative afternoon at home. As one mum shared, her daughter who usually spends time on the same spot all day was motivated to go outside more often by a simple yet enjoyable bug house activity. The parent herself benefited from the The Conservation Volunteers activity kit by gaining the motivation and guidance to build a bug house with her daughter.
Additional project outcome
A greater number of staff and volunteers from environmental and disability sectors will have increased skills, knowledge and confidence to engage more children and families in nature play and exploration.
In a survey we conducted, our partners expressed they benefited from the programme through increasing their staff’s knowledge and confidence around engaging beneficiaries in the outdoors, as well as increasing staff skills around delivering nature related activities. Many of our partners also expressed they benefited from increased support through being connected to a partner organisation. Partners shared that working with us has exposed them to “Fresh ideas, another lead person to work in partnership with, the impetus to use our fantastic woodland spaces.” In addition, the activity packs shared during lockdown have been of great benefit to partner organisations in keeping their beneficiaries engaged: “We can share these great, fun but simple resources with our families to offer them manageable activities to do as a family during this time”. One of our partner organisations expressed the great positive impact our project has had on their staff and the overall organisation. A staff member shared how the activities we conducted inspired them to facilitate outdoor related activities more regularly, using the knowledge and experience The Conservation Volunteers shared to implement a new programme which eventually led to the planning of an outdoor residential camp. The staff member shared that this has had a huge impact on the young people attending their service, who previously spent most of their time using social media or gaming, but who now spend much more time outdoors with friends.