Connecting young people to their local green spaces is one of The National Parks’ most important missions. We achieve this by working in partnership with our Green Beacons – community, school and youth group leaders, on some amazing training programmes. The John Muir Award, an engagement initiative of the John Muir Trust, is one of these. Dedicated to the experience, protection and repair of wild places in honour of John Muir, the Scottish-born founder of the modern conservation movement, the Award has been achieved by just under 1/2 million people across the UK. Working to the John Muir Award framework to explore, discover, conserve and share, participants learn how to look after wild places and get the most out of them. If you’re a teacher or leader looking for ways to help the next generation connect to the outdoors, read on for some inspiring stories.
Joanne Wright is a Higher Level Teaching Assistant at Millom School near Ravenglass in the south west of the Lake District National Park. She has been helping students achieve the John Muir Award since 2016.
‘Our Years 10 and 11 link in with the ASDAN programme of learning enrichment and part of that is to achieve the John Muir Award,’ says Joanne. ‘Many of our students are less advantaged – despite living on the very edge of the National Park, many of them will not have visited there. The John Muir Award helps them to do this, as well as being recognised for completing the different challenges it sets.’
Among the activities students enjoy are a residential visit to Low Bank Ground and Hinning House, where they can spend a full day in Coniston.
‘We explore the environment, we go on a guided walk, out in kayaks – anything which gives them a real sense of the great outdoors,’ she says.
Joanne has found that being able to complete the John Muir Award builds confidence and inspires students – even very reluctant ones.
‘A few years back I remember one girl being very nervous,’ says Joanne. ‘She didn’t want to go on the day trip and I had to tell her it was part of the course. When she arrived, she wouldn’t go on the boat trip and we really had to persuade her to come. But once she was out there, she loved it, she got to steer the boat you could literally see her confidence growing.’
The John Muir Award sees Millom students researching tourism and its impact on the Lake District: ‘We link that to the impact on the environment and pollution and do a traffic survey,’ says Joanne. ‘It all intertwines with their experience of the outdoors.’
Partly as a spin-off from this, and having to complete the John Muir Award within the school grounds last year, Millom has now started an eco-group and is taking steps to become an eco-school.
Joanne is proud that Millom offers this opportunity to its children and believes the partnership between the school, John Muir Award and Lake District National Park has been vital.
‘We don’t realise or appreciate how lucky we are to have it on our doorstep,’ she says. ‘We’re just half an hour away from Windermere but so many people don’t visit it. By taking our students to see the beauty of the Lakes, I hope it will encourage them to take part in more environment schemes and eventually get them to encourage their own children to do the same.’
Kenny McGougan is Faculty Head of Outdoor Learning and Technical Subjects at Grantown Grammar School in the northern most tip of the Cairngorm National Park. Together with colleague, PE and Outdoor Learning teacher, Jas Hepburn, they can’t remember a time when their school wasn’t running the John Muir Award – well over 1,000 pupils have received one. They see the John Muir Award as a vital element of the curriculum.
‘We’ve always been a very outdoor-based school, the outdoor classroom is literally on our doorstep, and now the outside element has been built into the curriculum,’ explains Kenny.
The school’s outdoor learning started more than 30 years ago with the Duke of Edinburgh Award. It built on this by incorporating the John Muir Award, mainly delivered in the wilderness of the Cairngorm National Park, with assistance from its rangers.
Students in Years 1, 2 and 3 all take part in a variety of outdoor trips, activities and visits, says Kenny. For instance: ‘This week, our Second-Year pupils went to Loch Garten and met one of the rangers who talked about conservation programmes like the Cairngorm Connect scheme.
‘Later that same week they spent the day out in Glenfeshie, looking at an existing and highly successful regeneration project. Now I’ve just returned from an outdoor focused residential experience which covered all our S3 groups, based around the Rothiemurchus area near Aviemore.’
He sees the John Muir Award as a means to deliver and enhance all subjects in Grantown’s curriculum, from science to maths, history and art to name but a few. ‘We have subject specific teachers taking the children out as well as Jas and me,’ he says. ‘You can tailor the John Muir activities to whatever you want, allowing for us to cover Scottish Education Benchmarks in an outdoor environment. For example, we recently talked a lot about COP26, because it was held in Scotland, highlighting what had happened at previous COP conferences and their successes and shortfalls.’
He believes that being able to learn outdoors in the Cairngorm National Park has produced incalculable benefits for Grantown’s students’ learning and mental health.
‘It opens their eyes beyond what’s around us and shows the need for us to be looking much more globally at things,’ he says. ‘Being in the park gives them a lot more information about these needs and helps them make links across the curriculum and beyond.’
It also alerts young people to the potential of a green career and the opportunities for environmental work in Scotland. ‘The job market we have now just didn’t exist when I was at school because of all the renewables and the services associated with it,’ he says. ‘I think the John Muir Award and what we do to achieve it broadens young people’s horizons in this direction, too.’
Jas sees the benefits in wellbeing for young people, some of whom may not even have climbed local hills, particularly around the Grantown on Spey or Glenmore areas.
At the other end of the scale, when they meet former pupils who completed the award: ‘They remember their days out with the school, the camaraderie, how they felt,’ he says. ‘When you take young people outdoors like this, they seem to start acting like children again, in that they have so much fun and enjoy it so much.’
Kenny agrees. ‘Because of the John Muir Award we see them discovering new places and enjoying exploring them. You also get a much better conversation afterwards about how they feel about conserving for the future and, most importantly, the best way to share all this learning with others. I think, where possible, every school should try to offer the John Muir Award.’