Green Spaces Research Group

Institute for Health Research

Go outdoors: using green and natural environments to benefit health

We bring together researchers and practitioners from across psychology, public health, physical activity, geography, outdoor education and primary education. We also collaborate with colleagues from Professional Services such as Student Advice and Wellbeing Services and Estates – taking a truly multidisciplinary approach to research that aims to improve access and benefits from being outdoors. 

Research themes

Our focus is towards identifying and developing sustainable, impactful interventions to benefit a variety of health markers and education outcomes using a range of outdoor settings and approaches. Postgraduate research students, placement students and researchers alike are working with external partners on projects from environmental science, to studies on wellbeing and physical activity and therapeutic practice outdoors.

Some of our projects include:

  • The effects of Forest School on children’s engagement with nature, physical activity and psycho-social development
  • Measuring trainee primary teachers’ attitudes towards the use of the outdoors to enhance pupils’ wellbeing to impact on their learning in all areas of the curriculum but with specific reference to science (life processes and living things)
  • Understanding mental health benefits of outdoor psychotherapeutic practice for a range of conditions and developing outdoor practitioners in this area
  • Exploring the health and wellbeing benefits of activities in the outdoors to develop The Mersey Forest’s own ‘Natural Health Service’
  • Exploring the health, wellbeing and social value of community assets, including initiatives such as those to maintain green spaces, develop allotment groups and promote productive gardening

Research impact

Our research portfolio is diverse and includes both fundamental and applied research, and the type of impact we generate is varied. The outdoor settings we research in are diverse, ranging from our own estate, natural urban environments, to remote wilderness environments. The target groups we aim to understand range across the lifespan, and include vulnerable and marginalised groups, adults with specific health conditions (e.g. depression) children and young people including those attending pre-school/daycare, and university students. The research activity we do is in partnership with external non-academic users and professional bodies to promote knowledge transfer, the realisation of impact from research and enhancement of professional practices. For example:

  • In collaboration with Mersey Forest, we have supported research on Forest School - exploring levels of physical activity, wellbeing and children's psycho-social development. The research is cited in the Mersey Forest plan which has recently been has been awarded the UNESCO UK Man and the Biosphere Urban Forum Award for Excellence and informed DEFRAs 25 year plan. We are also investigating the health and wellbeing benefits of activities in the outdoors such as Nordic walking, therapeutic gardening, health walks and Green Gyms delivered as part of The Mersey Forest’s Nature4Health Big Lottery Funded project. This research will inform the delivery of future interventions in the outdoors and develop the Mersey Forest’s Natural Health Service portfolio
  • A pilot project with The Walton Centre in relation to measuring biomarkers for the health of the liver to reduce the chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Physical outdoor activity is to be explored to promote liver health
  • Establishment of a designated Forest School area on IM Marsh Campus to enable primary trainee teachers to engage with local schools through the teaching of Forest Schools and outdoor learning. The area was planned and built in collaboration with The Mersey Forest and The Conservation Volunteers over the summer of 2016
  • Working in collaboration with World Challenge examined the health benefits (mental and physical) of expeditions for young people in wilderness settings. This was designed to help understand and develop applied practices in improving the health and psychological impacts of these types of interventions
  • In collaboration with Professional Services such as Student Advice and Wellbeing and Estates, we are keen to look at how we can utilise and innovate the institution’s green spaces in order to enhance the health and wellbeing of our staff and student community (as well as that of the wider neighbouring communities)
  • Developing projects with Alder Hey in the Park around a natural play environment and engaging with the surrounding local community to enhance their health and wellbeing by utilising their local green spaces

Who we work with

We are committed to working collaboratively with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure the research we undertake will have maximum impact. Wherever possible, research questions, methodologies, findings and dissemination are developed collaboratively with commissioners, providers and users of interventions and initiatives.

Externally, we work on a number of large collaborative projects with related professional bodies, outdoor provider organisations, and third sector/voluntary organisations.

We have strong links with local authorities, local NHS Trusts, local Clinical Commissioning Groups, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Royal Liverpool University Hospital and Liverpool Women’s Hospital. We also work with large member and professional bodies, for example the British Mountaineering Council and The Institute for Outdoor Learning.

We collaborate extensively with other academic institutions in the UK such as the University of Southampton, Edinburgh University and Salford University. LJMU are founder members of the Mersey Forest Natural Health Service Research Centre of Excellence.


In spring 2017, LJMU hosted a collaborative event with one of our partners to showcase the achievements of the Natural Health Service (NaHS) Consortium and offer practical resources for commissioners and practitioners to develop the service across the UK. Find out more about this event.

Contact us

If you are interested in working with us on a collaborative project, or are interested in MPhil/PhD research opportunities, please get in touch:

Contact the group coordinator: Professor Zoe Knowles