Global interest in children’s wellbeing is growing and is now central to major international policy documents regarding children’s life quality (e.g. UN Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Wellbeing). Research suggests that children’s wellbeing is linked to developing positive learning attitudes and coping successfully with change; conversely, low emotional wellbeing can lead to mental health problems. Critically, 10% of children in England suffer a severe mental health illness and suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people (Merikangas et al., 2010); this figure is higher for vulnerable groups, such as those from areas of high socio-economic deprivation.

Substantial benefits for wellbeing may be derived from contact with nature and lack thereof in childhood has been found to be a predictor for adulthood depression. Despite this, in the last 30 years the number of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK fell by 90% (Natural Childhood Report, 2012) and children living with high deprivation are significantly less likely to have access to green spaces. HM Government’s ‘Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ (2018) explicitly states a commitment to helping people improve their health and wellbeing by using green spaces, with a particular focus on disadvantaged areas. An innovative way to approach this is through art in familiar outdoor places; there is evidence that arts can improve wellbeing and social inclusion; however, individuals with low socio-economic status have less access to the arts than their more affluent counterparts and the arts are increasingly marginalised in school curricula.

This participatory study is situated at the intersection of these three issues: a concern with children’s wellbeing; their apparent disconnect with the natural environment; and a lack of engagement with the arts in school curricula. It builds on Amartya Sen’s work on human capabilities as a proxy for wellbeing, developing the term eco-capabilities to describe how children define what they feel they need to live a fully human good life through environmental sustainability, social justice and future economic wellbeing (the three pillars of sustainability).

Research is being undertaken using arts-based practice of the charity Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination (CCI) within two primary schools in Cambridgeshire. The overarching research question addressed by the research is: How does working with artists in nature influence children’s wellbeing?