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Eco-Capabilities: Supporting children’s wellbeing through participatory art in nature

A research project exploring how the wellbeing of children living in areas of high deprivation can be supported through working with artists in familiar outdoor places.

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/S006206/1). It started in December 2019 and will run until August 2022.

Team

Project leader

Partner

Collaborators

  • Dr Zoe Moula, UCL Institute of Education
  • Dr Elsa Lee, Anglia Ruskin University (ARU)
  • Ruth Sapsed and artists from CCI.
Background

Global interest in children’s wellbeing is growing and is now central to major international policy documents regarding children’s life quality (e.g. UN Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Wellbeing). Research suggests that children’s wellbeing is linked to developing positive learning attitudes and coping successfully with change; conversely, low emotional wellbeing can lead to mental health problems. Critically, one in six children in England suffer a mental health illness and suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people, and this figure is higher for vulnerable groups, such as those from low-income households (NHS, 2020). 

The Covid-19 pandemic has further had a detrimental impact on previously healthy children and adolescents’ mental health - for example, studies have shown that for some young people, smartphone or internet addiction through lockdown were further associated with increased depressive symptoms.

In an effort to combat these urgent problems, schools are increasingly expected to support mental health and wellbeing but receive few resources to do so. Substantial benefits for wellbeing may be derived from contact with nature and lack thereof in childhood has been found to be a predictor for adulthood depression. Despite this, in the last 30 years the number of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK fell by 90% (Natural Childhood Report, 2012) and children living with high deprivation are significantly less likely to have access to green spaces. 

HM Government’s ‘Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ (2018) explicitly states a commitment to helping people improve their health and wellbeing by using green spaces, with a particular focus on disadvantaged areas. An innovative way to approach this is through art in familiar outdoor places - there is evidence that arts can improve wellbeing and social inclusion - however, individuals with low socio-economic status have less access to the arts than their more affluent counterparts and the arts are increasingly marginalised in school curricula. 

This participatory study is situated at the intersection of these three issues: a concern with children’s wellbeing, their apparent disconnect with the natural environment, and a lack of engagement with the arts in school curricula.

It builds on Amartya Sen’s work on human capabilities as a proxy for wellbeing, developing the term eco-capabilities to describe how children define what they feel they need to live a fully human good life through environmental sustainability, social justice and future economic wellbeing (the three pillars of sustainability). 

The research focuses on the nature-based interventions of our project partner, arts and wellbeing charity Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination (CCI). 

Aims

The main aims of the research are to:

  • elicit children’s eco-capabilities, what we define as how children articulate what is important to them, or what they feel they need to live a fully human good life, through environmental sustainability, social justice and future economic wellbeing (i.e. the three pillars of sustainability)
  • consider how working with artists in nature in response to familiar, local spaces influences children’s wellbeing, as measured both using children’s self-defined list of eco-capabilities, as well as an extended measure of subjective wellbeing, and
  • use these findings to contribute to policy and pedagogical practice relating to arts-based education in nature.
Research questions

The overarching research question addressed by the research was:

  • How does working with artists in nature influence children’s wellbeing?

To address this, we are seeking answers to the following sub-questions:

  1. How does working with artists in nature support children’s wellbeing?
  2. How does working with artists in nature influence children’s perceptions of eco-capabilities?
  3. What are the mechanisms for change to wellbeing using arts-based practice in nature?
Methodology

The research methodology draws on arts-based research (ABR), a transdisciplinary approach to knowledge building that combines the tenets of the creative arts in research contexts and provides an inclusive approach to engaging disenfranchised perspectives, such as those of children.

Within the methodological framework provided by ABR we took a participatory approach to data collection, engaging children in the development, implementation and evaluation phases of the project.

Data collection was undertaken using a case study approach to working with children in two primary schools in East Anglia identified as being in areas of poverty and deprivation with minimal cultural provision and infrastructure.

Research included 120 children aged 7-10 years across four classes, two in each school.

Methods of data collection were designed to explore the practice of project partner CCI in each school through eight full-day creative adventuring days and included:

  1. Pre- and post- intervention wellbeing questionnaire with children.
  2. Pre- and post- intervention full day research workshop which included: children drawing their ‘happy place’ and reflecting on what makes them flourish, and walk-and-talk interviews with children around their school reflecting on their relationship with outdoor spaces.
  3. Within the eight days of creative adventuring, teachers, artists and researchers worked collaboratively to keep field notes to capture significant moments across the day, each focusing on their individual fields of interest.
  4. All teachers and artists undertook a focus group discussion and individual interviews at the end of the creative adventuring days.
Outputs

Films

Articles and chapters

Recorded seminars

Poster presentations

  • Walshe, N., & Moula, Z. (2021). Eco-Capabilities: Teacher and artist reflections on nature-based art interventions for children's wellbeing. Presented at: European Conference of Educational Research. Walshe, N., Moula, Z., & Lee, E. (2020).
  • Eco-Capabilities: Making nature explicit in children’s drawings about wellbeing. Presented at: North American Association of Environmental Education.