ECO-CAPABILITIES: Supporting Children's wellbeing through participatory art in nature

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment


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 10% of children in England suffer a severe mental health illness and suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people (Merikangas et al, 2010); this figure is higher for vulnerable groups, such as those from areas of high socio-economic deprivation.
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).
Research will be undertaken using arts-based practice of the charity Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination (CCI) within two primary schools in areas identified as having high poverty and deprivation with minimal cultural provision. This will include:
1. A full day workshop with children on wellbeing and nature, introducing the concept of eco-capabilities and using this as a platform from which to elicit from children a list of eco-capabilities. Children will then assess themselves against this list: to what extent do they feel they will be able to achieve these eco-capabilities in their life?
2. Identification by children of familiar places that they find difficult to engage with and powerless to effect change in, followed by a walk around these places in which they are asked to talk about their relationship with them. Artists will then plan arts-based interventions with the children such that practice will emerge directly from children's concerns about their local places.
3. Artists will facilitate eight half-day workshops with children, based on co-planned interventions. An exhibition (ARTinature) or performance (ACTinature) will take place within a local community engagement event led by CCI at the end of these interventions.
4. The eco-capabilities workshop will be repeated through which children will have the opportunity to revise their list of eco-capabilities and assess themselves against this revised list. The walk around their local area will also be repeated, re-visiting places children had identified as being difficult to engage with, exploring whether working with artists has developed their relationships with them. A final performance and art exhibition will take place in a public space in Cambridge.

Planned Impact

The following will be key beneficiaries (individuals and groups) of this research project:
1. Children from areas of high deprivation involved as participants will benefit through involvement in the participatory research process itself, as well as from engagement with arts and nature through the interventions in school. The final art exhibitions and performances in public spaces will further engage these children with the arts and, in doing so, develop their social capital, something which is particularly significant for children from areas of high socio-economic deprivation. Finally, the research will address the potential disenfranchisement of these children within their local places, thereby supporting the development of their subjective wellbeing.
2. Schools and teachers within Multi-Academy Trust within which the research is conducted will benefit through professional development relating to arts-based practice in nature. This will benefit the wider school community (beyond children involved in the project) now and in the future (thus making sustainable changes to practice).
3. Artists and creative directors from project partner Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination will benefit from improved professional networks and partnerships, for example with other arts and mental health based charities forged through the dissemination symposium. They will also benefit from wider dissemination of their work through a range of exhibitions and policy-influence workshops, as well as through the project website.
4. Teachers from beyond case study project will benefit from the open access website and associated public teaching resources, as well as the TeachMeet, providing ideas for working with children on arts-based projects in nature to support children's wellbeing. This will, thereby, impact children beyond the case study classes.
5. General Public in Cambridgeshire will benefit from increased connections with schools and children through art exhibitions and drama performances, more opportunities for engagement with children's art and theatre (thereby engagement with the arts more generally), and increased children's wellbeing, particularly in disadvantaged areas which may positively influence family relations in these areas.
6. Non-governmental organisations, particularly charities with remits for the development of children's wellbeing through arts-based practices, will benefit through knowledge mobilisation and an evidence-based understanding of the impacts of arts-based practice in nature, as well as improved networks and partnerships, both through funded attendance at the Dissemination Symposium and website resources.
7. Local government in Cambridgeshire will benefit through increased engagement with local schools and communities through the project and subsequent exhibitions. In particular, it will demonstrate publically how they are engaging with HM Government's 'A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment' (2018). Holly Hodge, Public Health Manager - Children's Mental Health, will attend the art exhibition and dissemination symposium to facilitate dissemination across Cambridgeshire.
8. National policy makers through access to evidence-based knowledge about arts-based practice in nature and how this supports children's wellbeing, particularly in disadvantaged areas. Through engagement with Westminster by way of a project reception and an All Party Parliamentary Group, the project will contribute to HM Government's Natural Environment for Health and Wellbeing and Nature Friendly Schools Programmes, part of their '25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment' (2018) and keep children happy and healthy.
9. International policy makers, such as UNESCO will benefit through networks, such as English Learning for Sustainability Alliance (ELSA: facilitated by the project RA, Elsa Lee) and UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) who are working to provide evidence for the UKs response to the UN SDGs.


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