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Education and young people

Explore the benefits highlighted in our Waterways for Today report

Waterway projects can offer opportunities for education and young people.

They provide hands-on learning experience in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, as well as the humanities and arts, through outdoor classrooms, visits to local waterways and inter-generational learning.

How Waterways Can Help

Britain’s inland waterways offer some amazing hands-on education opportunities, particularly in science, technology and maths subjects but also in humanities and the arts.

Outdoor classrooms and visits to local waterways provide a unique opportunity for school-aged children to get out of the classroom and see the built and natural heritage of their local waterway – at near zero cost to the education budget.

Our inland waterways played a key role in the Industrial Revolution, and visits to local canals or rivers can bring this history to life for young people. They can watch boats being worked through locks in exactly the same way they would have been 250 years ago, and help push a lock gate closed on stones worn smooth by centuries of other people standing in the same place doing the same thing.

Waterways offer many opportunities for intergenerational learning too. Visits, whether in school groups or with families, can also instil in young people an appreciation for the natural environment and the world around them.

Our waterways are an excellent introduction to the basics of how to harness nature effectively and are a brilliant gateway to STEM subjects, with teaching infrastructure (locks, bridges, channels) inspiring young people on to future careers in civil engineering and suchlike.

I was lucky enough to grow up in the industrial north, around the waterways, which gave me a fascination with history as well as a deep-rooted understanding of the place that I’m from, and the impact it had on me.

Liz McIvor, historian, author and presenter
of BBC’s ‘Canals: The Making of a Nation

Case Study: Outdoor Learning
on the Kennet & Avon Canal

A youth engagement programme run by the Canal & River Trust has succeeded in making waterways more relevant to young people living near the Kennet & Avon Canal. Collaborating with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, the project targeted people aged nine to 18 who were experiencing difficulties, disadvantage or vulnerability. Pupils from a local primary school, who struggle with a formal classroom setting, benefited from weekly outdoor activities based in and around the natural environment. Another group took part in school holiday activities through a local police charity, while a third group were young carers involved in the practical or emotional support of parents, siblings or other family members.

The activities included boat trips, learning how to operate locks and den building, all of which helped youngsters with their self-esteem and confidence, communication skills, attitude, aspiration and resilience to learning through challenges. The programme also created positive student/adult relationships. Young people left with a greater awareness of the waterways plus new skills, including safe use of tools and controlled risk-taking.

Facts & Stats

Research by the Blagrave Trust found that almost all outdoor learning interventions have a positive effect and that repeat, overnight or multi-day activities had a stronger impact than shorter ones. Waterways close to schools offer ideal locations for repeat and varied exposure to the outdoor environment.

Understanding and appreciating what has gone before is essential for creating a more sustainable planet. Lessons can be learnt from the past, while developing solutions for the future.

IWA’s Waterway Recovery Group has been offering family volunteering opportunities since 2017. Run as residential weekends, they have so far introduced 126 individuals to waterway restoration in a safe and inclusive environment, led by experienced volunteers. The events provide training activities for young people to improve skills and knowledge, while also teaching the importance of volunteering and of our industrial heritage.