Branching Out: Tackling mental health inequalities in schools with community artscapers

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


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 increase in 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 added or new support with their mental health as a result. Studies of the impact of Covid-19 on children's mental health have found that regular time outdoors is associated with better mental health; supporting a wealth of previous research suggesting that substantial benefits for wellbeing may be derived from contact with nature. Despite this, children are spending less time outdoors, leading to societal concern about children's 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. Therefore, this research will examine how an established artist-led nature-based project, 'Eco-Capabilities', can be implemented more widely in primary schools using community-based volunteers (described as Community Artscapers).
Amongst policy makers there is recognition of the need for creating the right environment and context to support children's mental health to reduce the growing need for interventions from mental health services; schools and education settings have been identified as having a key role in providing such support, yet they receive few resources to do so. The current Eco-Capabilities project explores how the wellbeing of primary school children can be supported through working with artists in outdoor spaces in school. Findings demonstrate that working with artists in nature has a positive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of children, particularly those with risk factors of adverse mental health. 'Branching Out' builds on this work and will investigate the feasibility of expanding and implementing the Eco-Capabilities project more widely. To increase scalability of the project, Community Artscapers will be recruited and trained to deliver the programme of activity, thus adding vital capacity and enabling projects to be developed in schools at a national level.
This research will use a participatory approach, working with stakeholders from schools, arts organisations, children's mental health charities, and representatives from local authorities and NHS Trusts; together, we will co-produce an implementation plan for working in partnership to recruit volunteers from local communities to become Community Artscapers. This will be achieved through two concurrent workstreams: The first will involve a national survey of arts organisations to identify current practice with children both in and outside school contexts, and interest in future involvement in the programme. The second workstream consists of three phases: firstly, we will use interviews and a focus group with artists and school staff currently involved in the Eco-capabilities programme to investigate challenges and barriers to implementation of the programme. Secondly, the Delphi Technique (a survey) will engage with school-based mental health and wellbeing experts nationally, to enable the development of a national implementation plan using Community Artscapers. Finally, this plan will be piloted with schools across a range of contexts in areas of inequality to test feasibility and acceptability of the delivery model and implementation plan with evaluation by a wider group of stakeholders, including representatives from the wider health system supporting children's health. From the research findings three toolkits will be built to support development of sustainable stakeholder groups and implementation of school-based, artistic practice in nature at scale.
Description The aim of the Branching Out project was to investigate how arts-in-nature practice can be expanded from school-based approaches reaching small numbers of children to whole communities, working in collaboration with project partners Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination (CCI), Fullscope and Cambridge Acorn Project. We did this by adding capacity through engaging community-based volunteers in schools called Community Artscapers. We undertook three strands of work: a national survey of arts/nature organisations; a national Delphi study undertaken by school-based staff responsible for children's mental health to elicit acceptability, appropriateness and feasibility of the Community Artscaper model; and a pilot of the model in six schools followed by interviews and focus groups with Community Artscapers, teachers and school leaders.
Evidence from Branching Out has found:
• The Community Artscaper model was deemed acceptable and appropriate by over 95% respondents of the Delphi study, with all minority groups having potential to benefit from artscaping (SEND, ACE, PP, children with anxiety and depression, EAL and marginalised groups).
• Using the Community Artscaper model, adapted to use a combination of volunteers and Teaching Assistants, all those interviewed reported that artscaping had a positive impact on:
o children's confidence, relationships, happiness, creativity, engagement as a learner, and wellbeing;
o adult's confidence, wellbeing, and understanding of mental health provision for children.
• The survey of arts/nature organisations across the UK identified a need for more and better professional development around the process of arts-in-nature practice provided for teachers, including by artists; support for schools to engage Community Artscapers to provide capacity to embed artscaping practice in schools; and greater attention paid to multi-agency level working to support embedding arts-and-nature practice into schools and communities at scale.
• Multi-professional working across the health, education and social care sectors is crucial for supporting scaling up of this practice to support the largest number of children and young people. However, it is difficult to engage healthcare professionals in conversations, as illustrated through our stakeholder engagement events.

In addition to new knowledge gained, there are a number of additional achievements to the project:
• Further research questions developed around how to scale up the impact of arts-in-nature practice so that it can be experienced at regional and national levels.
• Significantly strengthened partnership between UCL, ARU, CCI, Fullscope and CAP; this has led to further collaboration and application for additional funding.
Exploitation Route The outcomes of this funding might be taken forward through a number of academic routes. This could consider (1) how we can provide quantitative evidence for the impact of arts-in-nature practice on children and young people; (2) how arts-in-nature practice can be scaled up to support mental health and wellbeing of children and young people at regional and national level; and (3) how arts-in-nature practice impacts longer-term attitudes towards environment and sustainability - and, thereby pro-environmental behaviours - of children and young people.
Non-academic routes to the taking the outcomes of this funding forward comprise practice change in schools and by organisations which work with/in the arts and nature. Branching Out has developed a model for supporting capacity to develop arts-in-nature practice in schools through the use of community volunteers. This builds on our own evidence which suggests that arts-in-nature practice supports both mental health and wellbeing and connectivity with nature. As such, and within a context of increasing concern about the mental health and wellbeing of our children and young people, we argue that this practice should be embedded within schools. However, to effect this change, policy change is required both in terms of education, health and social care, including allocation of resources across all three contexts.
Sectors Education,Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The non-academic impact of Branching Out has been significant in that it has shaped and advanced the practice of project partners, Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination (CCI), Fullscope and Cambridge Acorn Project (CAP). CCI in particular have now piloted a mechanism for scaling up its practice using community volunteers, which represents a considerable change from its former practice whereby artists go into schools to work with children. It has also strengthened the work between CCI, Fullscope and CAP, in doing so opening up opportunities for further impact within schools, particularly across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. This has (1) impacted practice within schools, thereby supporting the mental health and wellbeing of more children in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; (2) begun to effect change in some schools who are incorporating arts-in-nature practice into their school days for more children; (3) informed discussions with Public Health and the ICS as to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people (particularly through Fullscope colleagues); and (4) contributed to national policy discussions around creative health, for example through submissions of evidence to: the Health and Social Care Committee's inquiry - Prevention in health and social care, and National Centre for Creative Health's Creative Health Review. Branching Out has also provided evidence for CCI, Fullscope and CAP to leverage an additional £68,000 funding from National Lottery and Evelyn Trust for developing the practice at a regional level. As such, it is impacting practice across Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and beyond in relation to arts-in-nature practice for supporting the wellbeing and mental health of children and young people.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Education,Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

Description Invited panel member for NCCH and APPG Roundtable: Creativity for health & wellbeing in the education system
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Description Submission to Health and Social Care Committee's inquiry - Prevention in health and social care
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to a national consultation/review
Description Branching Out Stakeholder Engagement Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We held a multi-professional stakeholder workshop with participants from across the health, social care and education sectors. We shared findings of the Branching Out project, and then discussed mechanisms for further scaling up of the artscaping practice, as well as cross-disciplinary working. 26 colleagues attended in person, with resources sent out via email to an additional 20.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022