Using the natural world to deliver Arts Award

“Having fun and being creative outdoors can help young people make a positive effect on their world”

20 July 2022

As part of the Discover Arts Award, young people are required to take part in arts activities, and for this, the natural world can be a great stimulus. In this blog post we speak to four artists about the creative ways they learn from the earth’s classroom.


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Sonya Patel Ellis is a London-based writer, editor, author, content producer and artist focusing on plants, nature, gardening, wellbeing, sustainability and the arts. Combining a lifelong passion for the natural world with 25 years of editorial, publishing, design and communications experience, she explores the botanical world – and thus the interconnectivity between art and science and plants and people – through books, articles, artwork, workshops, community projects and collaborations.

In this webinar, Sonya Patel Ellis shares her influences and guides us through her thoughts on the role of art in understanding the natural world around us. Sonya is joined by members of the Youth Programme team from Kew Gardens and their Youth Explainers, who will be share ways that they celebrate and learn about nature through creative activity.

Visual Arts

Holly Dabbs is an artist, teacher and the founder of Foxglove Forest School. They provide fun, creative, outdoor learning experiences for children and families across the UK.

With roots in the outdoor way of life in Scandinavia, Forest School was brought to the UK in the early 90s. It is a child-centred learning process, where learners spend regular, sustained time in a natural, woodland environment. Through exploration, play and risk-taking they build confidence and self-esteem. The workshops celebrate the changing seasons and weather, exploring art making inspired by the world around us and our experience of its wonder.

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We asked Holly why visual arts and a forest school practice is a great and important way of engaging young people with the natural world.

Being outside, embracing nature is sadly not the norm for lots of young people and families I work with which means that it’s even more vital for them to have a positive experience. I use songs, stories and practical art making to engage and excite my groups.

I’ll always start my sessions with mindful breathing & simple listening activities to get participants to be present in the moment, connect with their bodies and what’s happening around them. Working in the outdoors changes the pace and feeling of how people are. It’s proven that spending time in nature helps calm anxiety and depression, encouraging well-being.

Looking after the world around you, noticing changes like bird song or budding leaves can really help ground your emotions and help people to value the nature world. In a time of climate crisis and global uncertainty, connecting with your local wild place, urban or rural can support people feel to feel connected. Having fun and being creative outdoors can help young people know that they can make a positive effect on their world and hopefully become an advocate for nature!

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Chris Holland has developed The Natural Musicians, a range of activities and experiences that enable people to connect with nature and each other in a fun, lyrical, playful way. He takes groups of people and guides them to seek out and select real and imagined sounds from nature. Then, using a variety of voice, body percussion and found instruments (sticks, stones, leaves etc.) Chris, helps them to weave their own sounds into compositions.

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We asked Chris why he thinks music is a great and important way of engaging young people with the natural world.

“Scientifically the whole universe is vibration. Everybody listens to music and is moved by it in some way, whatever their age. Young people are especially creative. Making spontaneous music inspired by the place is very connecting. We get into a vibe together. It helps us become present. And that is a true gift!

The activities and experiences make connections between people and place, awakens the senses, sparks curiosity and draws out the creative spirit… there are so many health benefits, and they usually involve a good dose of playfulness and laughter too.

I want there to be a bit more joy and harmony in the world, more respect and connection for each other and the land we all grow from, and the Natural Musicians is one way of enabling that!

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Toby Peach is an award-winning theatre maker who uses games, stories and play to engage audiences in conversations. Toby is sharing a project he undertook as a freelancer with KIT Theatre, exploring climate activism in schools through a school take over project called EnviroTakeover. The EnviroTakeover throws young people into a mission to help their school become a T.R.E.E. School (Trailblazing Revolutionary Educational Establishment). A T.R.E.E Agent arrives to set everything up, but her plans are thwarted when a Financial Advisor, tasked with cutting school budgets, arrives and shuts down the T.R.E.E School plans. Pupils and teachers refuse to give up and go undercover with the T.R.E.E Agent to secretly continue with the T.R.E.E. school transformation. They use their creative skills to make a series of performances to convince the Financial Advisor how important sustainability is. The week ends with the Financial Advisor arriving in school to see how cost-cutting is going, they are surprised to be immersed in the T.R.E.E School performances: but will they change their mind?

We asked Toby why theatre is a great and important way of engaging young people with the natural world.

“COP26 made the realities of the climate emergency ever more present, bringing the issue starkly to the world’s attention. It is now more urgent than ever that we raise a generation of environmentally literate children and young people. Our project creatively reimagines the mechanics of Youth Climate Activism.

My arts practice is based on the Mantle of the Expert, developed by Dorothy Heathcote, casting young people as the experts who are needed to solve a problem or help a character, to engage with a topic. In EnviroTakeover they are needed by the T.R.E.E. Agent, Hayley, to help her prove the importance of taking action to help the natural world. We were able to create a range of activities, aimed at specific years, that would all fit into the overall mission and bring the whole school together. With climate anxiety growing in young people, this methodology builds agency for young people, which is incredibly important in the face of the climate emergency. Through completing the mission, they gain an important understanding of their power in their world, how they can influence their community and how their actions can spark change.”

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