The Eco-Capabilities Project

Eco capabilities

Educators and artists enjoy their own creative adventure in the Mill Road Cemetery; part of our launch day for the research, February 2020

The Eco-capabilities project is examining how working creatively in nature can help the well-being of young children. It is led by Dr Nicola Walshe,  Head of the School of Education and Social Care at Anglia Ruskin University, who was awarded a six-figure sum of funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in 2019. The research team will be coming alongside two ArtScaping projects that take place this spring and summer with Shirley Primary School and Howard Primary School.  A project diary will document and share the ongoing adventures for these communities below.

Initial evidence for this research proposal was gathered by Anglia Ruskin’s Dr Nicola Walshe and Dr Elsa Lee from the University of Cambridge when they worked with CCI in 2018. This was set out in a recent chapter in the Research Handbook on Childhoodnature published by Springer and written with Ruth Sapsed and Jo Holland from CCI. It detailed how CCI artists observed how the creative activities they took part in with the children had a significant effect on the children’s wellbeing – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The study found artists could illustrate how their work encouraged children’s confidence and independence, as well as stimulating new evidence of creativity. The AHRC funding will go towards further research into CCI’s work with schools, working closely with the children and artists themselves.

Dr Walshe said in the announcement of the award: 

There is significant national and global interest in children’s wellbeing and mental health, with figures suggesting that 10% of children in England suffer a severe mental health illness, and that suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people. This figure is higher among those from deprived areas.

We believe that an innovative way to reconnect children to their local environment is using art in familiar outdoor places. Our research so far has found that artists undertaking this practice have observed how it encourages the children’s independence and sense of agency, develops their confidence, and cultivates a healthy sense of adventure! However, we need further evidence to determine why this is the case.

This AHRC grant will enable us to explore this further, working alongside the artists in two primary schools over the course of a school term to explore exactly how children benefit from this unique way of learning.

The outcomes will be of particular significance for teachers, schools and their communities but also for policy makers through access to evidence-based knowledge about arts-based learning in nature and how this supports children’s wellbeing.

A new webinar series is planned to share learning from the research and the first in this series has been recorded during lockdown. It reflects on a CCI project with Mayfield Primary School and Under Fives Roundabout Preschool in 2018 - Lost Words and Found Connections - and has contributions from Nicola Walshe (ARU), Pippa Joyce and Jake Holt (Mayfield Primary School), Dana Harrison (Under Fives Roundabout Nursery), Filipa Pereira-Stubbs (CCI Artist), and Ruth Sapsed (CCI Director) . The project diary can be viewed here.

The project is supported by an advisory panel and we are grateful to Hilary Bungay, Joel Chalfen, Kevin Jones and David Whitley for their support in this.