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.


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