Heathside School in Hampstead has been awarded Heath Friendly School status. Headteacher Katherine Vintiner says there are benefits for children and parents
We are so fortunate to have Hampstead Heath on our doorstep. Our pupils start visiting the heath from pre-reception, learning the value of outdoor play and the natural world at a really young age. Being a Heath Friendly School means Heathside is committed to protecting and conserving Hampstead Heath and our pupils can take part in worthwhile nature-related projects such as creating animal boxes for hedgehogs and bats which help even our youngest pupils build lasting positive connections to our precious green spaces.
At Heathside, spending time outside is a central part of the school day. Play time, known as Heathtime, takes place on the heath at least three times a week for classes from pre-reception to Year 9. Children have the space and freedom to run around, climb trees and build dens. Sports lessons also take place on the heath, with Reception and Year 1 using the heath for general fitness and Years 2 and 3 doing football practice there.
Forest School also takes place weekly up to Reception, twice weekly for Years 1 and 2 and fortnightly up to Year 4. Lessons are led by our own Forest School leaders and have an environmental and ecological focus, covering plant and animal lifecycles and habitats. At Forest School, pupils have access to three off-the-beaten track sites, given by special permission, giving them a chance to explore truly semi-wild areas of Hampstead Heath.
The heath is even an inspiration for art projects; last term, Reception children collected autumn leaves to make into crowns. And being a Heath Friendly school gives Heathside access to the Heath Hands charity and their volunteers who engage with the pupils on projects, such as the wreath making workshops which took place before Christmas.
The Heath Rangers, Heath Hands volunteers and our Forest School teachers helped the children select natural materials and showed them how to weave a festive wreath. It was a lovely way for parents and children to enjoy the area together. It is the Heath Hands charity which created the Heath Friendly school status. Volunteers at the charity work to connect Hampstead Heath – one of London’s largest green spaces – with the local community.
During the height of the pandemic, visitor numbers on the heath increased to an estimated 15 million which, combined with bad weather and heavy rain, had a devastating effect on the landscape as paths eroded and the land was churned up. Heath Hands is Heathside’s Charity of the Year and funds raised this year will go towards helping restore the landscape to its former glory.
But being a Heath Friendly School doesn’t just benefit the children, our staff get involved too. At a recent teacher training day, staff had a guided mindfulness session on the heath followed by a nature walk thanks to the Heath Hands volunteers.
Increasingly, educationalists are confirming what parents instinctively know, that time outdoors is of benefit to children; a study commissioned by the Wildlife Trusts to evaluate the impact that experiencing nature has upon children, shows how profound those benefits can be. Overall, the research revealed that children’s wellbeing increased after they had spent time connecting with nature: the children showed an increase in their personal wellbeing and health over time, and they showed an increased connection with nature and demonstrated high levels of enjoyment.
Time on the heath provides essential balance to a rich and varied curriculum and the pressures of modern city life. For our youngest pupils, outdoor play provides opportunities to take risks, improve their mental skills and have fun. There are also the physical benefits from being in natural light and getting plenty of exercise. We hope that our status as a Heath Friendly school will provide benefits for pupils, and for the treasure that is Hampstead Heath, for many years to come.
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