Mistakes don’t matter

Why we should make them: A celebration of learning in the outdoors

Jupiter Artland is a contemporary sculpture park set in 120 acres of woodland on the outskirts of Edinburgh. At the heart of everything that happens at Jupiter Artland is our ground-breaking learning programme. Nurseries, schools, colleges, universities and community groups are all invited to visit Jupiter Artland free of charge, subsidised by paid for classes, courses and events. Core to the learning programme is the concept that learning takes place in the outdoors. 

At Jupiter Artland the relationship between artwork and landscape is crucial. The commissioning process invites artists to come and spend time in the woodlands and choose a specific site for their work which is then created in response to the place it will inhabit. Learners are encouraged to explore not only how the artwork makes them feel physically and emotionally but how it fits into its surroundings. Nature is an important part of their experience. In the same way that artists are free to play, explore and respond to the natural environment so learners are encouraged to discover the landscape, play in nature and take artistic risks. For some, being in the natural environment, roaming the woods is as valuable as exposure to the artwork. Children listen differently in the place because it is magical and wild.

Image courtesy of Jupiter Artland.

The benefits of time spent outdoors

There can be little doubt that growing up is changing. Technology has had a huge impact on the way children learn, play and socialise and the jobs they will do in the future. For all its advantages, technology has taken something valuable away from children – namely the time for free play in the outdoors. In spite of the known benefits for physical and mental health, we all have fewer opportunities to access the natural world. For many of us who grew up running free in the woods and fields surrounding our homes, it is hard to believe how small the distances children are now able to roam unaccompanied from their front door. For many it stops at the garden gate and for most at the end of their street.

Image courtesy of Jupiter Artland.

The collection at Jupiter Artland is as diverse and varied as the landscape it inhabits. Some works bestride the Artland and dominate the horizon, others sit more quietly, one such of these is Only Connect by Ian Hamilton Finlay. Only Connect literally bridges a fissure in the bedrock in the Back Woods. Metaphorically it references a famous line from EM Forster’s novel Howard’s End in which two families with nothing in common are brought together by a shared passion, in this case for culture. The work sits within the landscape, it is possible to walk across it without noticing it and we often use this as a starting point for a conversation about how we connect to nature in today’s technology enabled world. So many young people are growing up without a strong connection to nature. Afraid of it even. Unable to entertain themselves left to their own devices, its almost as if they need to be taught how to play outdoors.

Image courtesy of Jupiter Artland.

Child-led learning

Each learning visit to Jupiter Artland involves an adventure in the Artland. Often as we are journeying between the sculptures we will stop to look at a leaf, pick a berry or collect a stick. These natural materials are collected and used in a related workshop – leaf collages, natural dyes, journey sticks. All the time we are building a connection for young people between nature and the artwork they enjoy. Such adventures bring an awareness of seasonality too, what colours do we see at different times of year, which animals are active, what bird calls can we hear? In this way we build future custodians of the natural world. After all, how can we expect young people to protect and care for wild places if they are not connected to them?

Urbanisation, adversity to risk, a preponderance of homework and after school activities and parents with long working days have all led to a culture of children being ferried in cars between important appointments. This means removing from children the simple joys of being in the outdoors, getting muddy, taking risks and making mistakes that don’t matter. This is bad both in terms of their physical health, but also because it leaves them ill equipped to meet challenges and manage risk in later life. After all, if you have lived a life in which you have never risked disappointment, then how will you cope the first time it happens?

Image courtesy of Jupiter Artland.

The child-led learning ethos at Jupiter Artland encourages experimentation. Workshops give learners the opportunity to try out materials and concepts they have encountered in the Artland with an emphasis on testing ideas rather than having a perfectly formed ‘piece’ to take home at the end. Workshop leaders help young learners to understand that they are making creative decisions and taking risks which could lead to something amazing, or not, and that either outcome is valid. Of course this process could take place in any space – classroom, kitchen, wherever but somehow being in the outdoors in our woodland classroom the experimentation seems to come more easily.

Skills for the future

It has been suggested that up to 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in completely new jobs that don’t yet exist. A 2010 poll by IBM found that 60% of CEOs surveyed thought that creativity was the most important leadership quality. It is vital that education equips learners to be creative, flexible and resilient enough to survive and thrive in this fast-paced world. At Jupiter Artland we enable children to take managed risks such as climbing trees, building dens and experimenting, so they are confident to try things to see what happens. They are given permission to make mistakes and thus build resilience and we could not do that without the space and connection to nature we are so lucky to enjoy here. Crucially a visit to Jupiter Artland offers a young person time, space and inspiration to explore and question without judgement.

The learning programme takes place year-round at Jupiter Artland from January to December. Free learning visits, classes, courses and workshops can be booked online via the website

Kate Latham is Head of Learning at Jupiter Artland, which she describes as her “Spiritual home, a place where she is able to pursue her twin passions of facilitating creative expression and learning in the outdoors”.