The Natural Benefits Of Nature
For most adults, and especially children, a large part of an average day is spent sat behind a desk in a building or outside in a tarmac and concrete landscape with maybe a patch of grass and a few trees dotted around. For the most part we don’t notice the environment we find ourselves in but we do notice how we feel; and it’s this feeling that I’d like to cover in this blog entry.
My motivation for writing comes from my own life journey and the nature interactions I’ve been lucky enough to witness. I’m a child of the 1970’s – I remember heading to the local park with my sisters or friends and disappearing for hours into what, at the time, felt like a vast wilderness (but in reality was the wooded area around the local football pitch). We would build dens, play hide and seek or just generally meander until hunger meant it was time to get back home. It’s easy to look back with rose-tinted glasses but due to the era I grew up in I also witnessed the change to computers in education and the excitement of home computers like the Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad 464 or Atari games console. Yes we really did get excited about 64Kb of memory, when it doubled to 128Kb and the invention of email and the internet! These were heady times where suddenly the appeal of the park seemed to wane and staying in with the curtains closed to avoid the glare of sunlight on the screen seemed more important. In fact I can still remember the computer lab at school was always in darkness so the green DOS commands were easier to see.
With school completed and the work place beckoning the only logical choice seemed an office – after all technology was the future. For years I worked at a software company climbing the corporate ladder, got married and started a family until one day I got a wake-up call. It came in the form of the headmistress at the local Primary School where all my children attended; she was phoning with regards to my youngest daughter. My daughter was 4 years old and in Reception, my other children were also at equally important stages of education such as SATs years, but my youngest was in trouble. She was struggling to adjust from the free play, relaxed atmosphere of the nursery she had been to which was set in a converted barn in the middle of an orchard into what to her must have felt like a very formal, structured and urban setting. It was at that moment that I realised my children needed me more than stuff.
Now don’t worry I’m not saying we all need to completely change our lives but I’m merely painting a picture of where my interest and experience comes from to talk about the benefits of reconnecting with nature. Since leaving an office environment I’ve had many roles including home help for the elderly, lunchtime assistant in schools, training Adults with Mental health issues, teaching children with autism, Primary School teaching, Forest School Leader, Outdoor Education Ranger and now Bushcraft Instructor. This journey has taken place over 16 years as my youngest daughter is now in university.
It’s a journey that’s come full circle back to my childhood as I’m now back outside making dens. Now there’s research a plenty to say that being outside is good for our mental and physical health but especially for children. They get to explore textures beyond plastic, smells beyond air fresheners, decision making and problem solving in real world scenarios rather than through a screen or the outcome of a phone vote. I still maintain the best climbing frame in the world is a tree and the best swing is a length of rope on a sturdy branch. Through my Forest School training I had to do all the research and make all the justifications on why children and adults need to get outside more. And to be honest the irony of sitting at a desk for hours at a time writing and researching wasn’t lost on me. I could talk about how doctors in the western world are now even prescribing nature time to overcome stress and depression but what I’m really interested in is what I see.
I’m lucky enough to have changed myself throughout this journey – I’m happier, more aware and less interested in stuff. But I also get to instruct and see the change in others. To see a child with autism suddenly relax while lying in the long grass of a meadow is something very special when just moments before the buzz of fluorescent lighting was causing them to have a major meltdown. Witnessing an Adult who self-harms or has substance abuse issues forget all their troubles while they forage for their lunch is nothing short of amazing. Seeing children of all ages ditch the screens and pressures of looking cool in the latest fashions to don their wellies; forget about homework, exams and expectations and just focus on building a den for the nights’ accommodation. To take a stick and turn it into a utensil that will help them cook their own breakfast over an open fire when perhaps using the cooker at home isn’t something they even engage with. I also get to see similar changes in adults – slowing down for an early morning sit spot to observe nature, star gazing, craft work, no alarm clocks, no screens; the list goes on.
There is, however, an even more magical change to see. And that change comes in the form of parent and child sharing the experience of reconnecting with nature. Fathers, Mothers, sons and daughters working together in the woods reconfirms bonds and increases respect for one another. A memory that always stays with me happened during a carving session on a family course but I’ll let the parent in question describe it from their point of view…
“As a teacher myself, I appreciated just how child-focussed the instructors made the course, and how they encouraged independence and confidence (even with very sharp knives!) in the children, and especially my son. They struck a wonderfully balanced tone that ensured the course was fun, informative, very well organised and very safely run. The health and safety was seriously delivered without causing undue worry and I thought this in particular was superb. We learnt so much and I could see how each skill session was backed up by genuine knowledge, real skill and purpose, and a depth of experience that again was delivered perfectly. We had such a good time and will absolutely be back in the future! Thanks for a wonderful course it was simply brilliant and we have many happy memories (and two butter knives too!)”
The reason this sticks with me is that I recall how nervous the parent in question was about the thought of a knife being handed over to their son and then the sense of pride, respect and maybe just a little relief when the project was successfully completed. Their son also came away with a huge amount of pride in their accomplishment. I get to see this transformation regularly and it never ceases to bring a smile to my face and a warm glow to my heart. As for my youngest daughter, and indeed all my children, she’s doing well with everything that modern life throws at her but she still likes to come to the woods to disconnect from the man-made and reconnect with nature. And as proud as we both are of her academic achievements the thing she prizes the most is her memory box which contains things like her first carved spoon, a magic wand she made, pressed flowers from ‘that summer holiday’ and lots of other moments shared in nature.
The stuff, the gadgets, the fashion are all nice to have but none of them will ever beat the importance of time together and sharing those moments to truly connect with what’s around us; so get out there and make memories because trust me they won’t look back in 15 years’ time and remember what phone or computer game it was you bought them for Christmas when they were 13 but they will remember the experiences… and so will you.