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Engaging children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the natural environment

children in nature
Published: March 2021

Defra commissioned NatCen to conduct this research into current provision of activities that support children and young people’s engagement with the natural environment outside of school.

In its 25 Year Environment Plan, the Government set out a commitment to connecting people with the environment, with a particular focus on disadvantaged areas. Defra commissioned NatCen to conduct this research into current provision of activities that support children and young people’s engagement with the natural environment outside of school. The focus of the research was to identify the extent to which children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds access these activities, the barriers and challenges that are present, and how best practice can be built upon and current provision optimised to improve engagement.

Aim

The objectives of this research were to:

  • Identify gaps in service provision, barriers and challenges to effective and quality provision and any solutions to increasing engagement with the target group.
  • Identify examples of best practice and opportunities to build on current provision, as well as provide recommendations for effective future monitoring of engagement with the target group.
  • Understand how a future natural environment programme could reach the most disadvantaged young people.
  • Identify where support would be best allocated and how it could be developed, including the role for potential government support.

The research is based on fieldwork conducted between May 2019 and March 2020, and the report focuses on the experiences of activity providers, children and young people before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Findings

Barriers and challenges

The research identified a range of individual, organisational, as well as spatial barriers that hindered engagement of children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the natural environment. The cost of engaging – financial and time – was an overarching factor as was the lack of familiarity with natural environments. This range of perceptual (belonging and safety) and practical barriers (income, transport) are interlinked and mutually reinforcing. The natural environment sector’s lack of diversity (in terms of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and of physical and mental health conditions) also influences its ability to be inclusive – in its visibility and in concrete practices. To address these multiple barriers, policy and practice solutions need therefore to be equally multi-layered and integrated across the three levels of ‘the space’, the organisation and the individual/family.

Engagement facilitators

To facilitate access to the natural environment for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, national and local providers set out a range of actions that could be taken at the structural or systemic level, including:

  • National policy: the importance of having a joined-up approach to children and young people’s engagement was emphasised. This included cross-departmental prioritisation, alignment between national and local priorities and a dedicated funding package for providers with an extended reach to organisations in deprived areas.
  • Local infrastructure: having shared strategic priorities at a local level was felt to be a key enabler. One way this was achieved was through successful partnership working and the sharing of promising practice. Being part of a network of local organisations was also said to make it easier to reach a wide range of different communities.  
  • Organisational: to facilitate engagement of children and young people from underrepresented groups, organisations should focus on their programming, challenging traditional representation and cultural assumptions to address the sector-wide lack of diversity and considering targeted engagement.

Methodology

The study used a mixed-methods research design carried out in stages to build and enrich insights gathered at each stage:

1. A document review and web-based research to build a sample of providers of natural environment activities.

2. In-depth interviews with 25 national stakeholders to gain a broad perspective of the types of natural environment programmes that are available to children and young people.

3. Survey of local provision and programmes in 8 local areas to gain a more detailed understanding of the types of provision available in areas with high levels of deprivation.

4. Area-based in-depth studies in 4 local areas comprising of:

  • 13 interviews with local providers of natural environment programmes for children and young people
  • 7 focus groups with children and young people.

Research team

Fatima Husain, Berenice Scandone, Emma Forsyth, Hannah Piggott, Muslihah Albakri, Sue Waite