IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Branching Out: Tackling mental health inequalities in schools with Community Artscapers

A research project exploring arts-based nature activities in schools to support children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Picture of green wild flowers. Nicola Walshe.

This research will look into how the Eco-Capabilities project can be implemented more widely into primary schools using community-based volunteers as 'Community Artscapers'.

This project aims to be completed by March 2023.

About us


Professionals across health, social care and education sectors are increasingly concerned by the growing number of children requiring support for their mental health and the subsequent increased demand for mental health services. This has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and it is estimated that there could be as many as 1.5 million requiring additional or new support with their mental health as a result. 

Studies of the impact of Covid-19 have found that regular time outdoors is associated with better mental health for children. This supports a wealth of previous research suggesting that contact with nature has substantial benefits for wellbeing. Despite this, children are spending less time outdoors, leading to societal concern about their loss of connection with the natural environment.

A novel way to approach this is through art in outdoor places, with evidence suggesting that the arts can aid physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development, as well as improving mental health and social inclusion. 

This has been demonstrated in a previous project, Eco-Capabilities, led by Professor Nicola Walshe (UCL) in partnership with arts-based charity Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination, which delivered arts-based nature activities in schools to support children’s mental health and wellbeing.

The project is one of 12 funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council that will display innovative ways of using culture and nature to improve health and wellbeing. The projects involve researchers collaborating with communities across the UK to establish how cultural and natural interventions can be placed at the service of public health.

Research questions

The overarching question addressed by the research is: 

  • How can community volunteers be engaged to implement arts-based nature activities in primary schools as an approach to mitigating mental health inequalities at scale? 

This will be addressed by the following sub-questions: 

  • How and by what process can adults in the wider community be activated as volunteers to build capacity to support children’s mental health through arts-based practice in nature?
  • What partnerships are required to facilitate this model and by what processes can these partnerships best be developed?

The overarching aim of Branching Out is to establish how successful elements of Eco-Capabilities can be expanded to reach more children by engaging volunteers as Community Artscapers. 

More specifically, the objectives include: 

  • To establish a sustainable partnership between the public sector and community stakeholders across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. 
  • To learn from and work with this partnership to co-create a model for stakeholder engagement and partnership at a national level. 
  • To explore how Eco-Capabilities can be scaled up using volunteers as Community Artscapers. 
  • To develop and pilot an implementation plan for recruiting and working with Community Artscapers alongside arts organisations and artists working with nature in schools.
  • To develop toolkits for Community Artscapers, arts organisations working with nature, and schools to support the delivery of arts-based nature programmes in schools.
  • To develop a network of arts organisations working with nature across the UK for dissemination and potential to support future delivery. 

The research methodology draws on an exploratory, multi-level mixed methods approach to investigate how Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination, Cambridge Acorn Project and Fullscope partners can adapt their practice and implement their offer across more school contexts and consider how a new model of delivery can fit within the existing health ecosystem. 

To conceptualise the research design, three levels of study are being undertaken to reflect the complexity of the project delivery environment: 

  • At the micro-level, the school staff and artists currently involved in the Eco-capabilities project will be interviewed to underpin the development of the new model and implementation plan. 
  • At the meso level, teachers from across schools in England will be invited to complete a Delphi survey as a consensus-based approach to model development and implementation. 
  • Finally at the macro level, a qualitative inquiry will be used to gather data from external stakeholders from the health sector, local authority, education and voluntary organisations regarding the feasibility, acceptability and appropriateness of the proposed Community Artscapers programme model and implementation plan. 

Alongside this, a survey will capture current levels of activity from organisations that provide arts and/or nature-based activities in schools across the UK to identify interest in future involvement in the proposed programme.

The theoretical foundation underpinning this research design is the concept of implementation outcomes, where the effectiveness of the implementation of an intervention is investigated rather than evaluating the outcome of the intervention itself. 


Project lead

Team members

Articles and chapters
Recorded seminars