A driving force behind the initiative is to embed outdoor learning into core teaching, enabling children to reconnect with nature and come away from their screens.

The programme involves creating a biodiverse and productive garden that incorporates an outdoor learning space at each school. Led by Jilly Dougan from Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, the children have been helping plant wildflowers and fruit such as apple trees, plum trees, raspberry and strawberry bushes. The spaces also include bug habitats and a plank seating area suitable for small groups or a whole class.

Volunteers from Danske Bank have been helping to create the gardens. Alongside the creation of the outdoor learning space pupils will benefit from a series of bespoke workshops and webinars on topics such as biodiversity, healthy food choices, picking, preparing and preserving fruit, and pruning, cutting and propagating.

In Northern Ireland, the Eco-Schools programme is run by the environmental charity Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful.

Charlene McKeown, Environmental Education Manager, KNIB Eco-Schools said:

“Time spent outdoors is more important than ever to ensure our mental and physical health and wellbeing are looked after. Much of the formal curriculum can be taught outside. These gardens will create an outdoor learning space as well as a safe haven for pupils and staff alike to spend quality time, and to learn.

“Thanks to Danske Bank coming on board as a partner for the project, we are able to help address biodiversity loss at a local level, providing a holistic opportunity for children to reconnect with nature and truly learn to love and respect it through outdoor learning.”

Raymond Millar, Head of Property & Procurement Services at Danske Bank, said:

“The Eco-Schools Outdoor Learning programme is a very relevant initiative that brings together education on biodiversity with the wellbeing benefits that outdoor learning brings.

“Biodiversity is essential because it impacts on all of our lives, both directly and indirectly. Everyone has their role to play, including businesses. As part of our own biodiversity strategy we’ve been investing in initiatives to enhance biodiversity at our own properties, such as planting wildflower gardens and creating living walls in our head office. It’s also important to us to help to raise awareness and play our part in educating people about biodiversity issues.

“Getting children outdoors is so important for their health, wellbeing and learning and can set them on a pathway to happy, healthy and environmentally sustainable lifestyles. We’re delighted to be working with Eco-Schools on this exciting new project.”

Welcoming the initiative, DAERA Deputy Secretary, David Small said:

“In our current climate and with COVID-19 restrictions, time spent outdoors is key to ensuring our mental and physical health and wellbeing are looked after. The Eco-Schools Outdoor Learning initiative in partnership with Danske Bank creates opportunity and a location for this to happen.

“It is also a fantastic prospect to address biodiversity loss at a local level and equip our children with the skills to grow their own and to grow what they like to eat. It is essential we create positive connections with nature, our children will remember the minibeasts and fruit they are discovering if they get to handle and taste them rather than just seeing the pictures on a screen.”

Arlene Poots, Principal of Lisburn Central Primary School, added:

“At Lisburn Central Primary School, we are keen to provide opportunities for learning outdoors which will allow our pupils to reconnect with nature and explore our wonderful school grounds. This project has provided us with our first garden area in school, which will have a positive impact on pupils’ health and well-being as well as raise their awareness of biodiversity at a local level.

“Everyone in our school community is excited about getting outdoors to use the seated area for learning and we are all looking forward to harvesting the fruit we have planted. We are very grateful to Danske Bank and Eco-Schools for this fantastic opportunity.”