Nature and Mental Health

The Power of Nature

As a teacher and deputy headteacher for 20 years I have worked with hundreds of children from all walks of life. Working mainly in deprived areas, my passion was always for those children who didn’t quite ‘fit the mould;’ the kids who had life challenges that weighed heavier on their minds than knowing their verbs from their adverbs. 

 

I worked with many children who were in the care system and those who had learning challenges such as ADHD, ASD and EBD. These kids often gave me the toughest ride as their teacher, but they very often had the most to offer. 

 

Over the years, I became increasingly frustrated by the often, too prescriptive nature of the curriculum. I felt that teaching was becoming a giant checklist of things we had to ‘do’ yet with very little focus on deep learning, creativity or the pursuit of talents and strengths. 

 

As a writer, I am of course, an avid supporter of the power of literacy, but similarly I do not believe that all learning needs to be written down. For those children who may struggle to squeeze their ‘square peg’ shapes into the ‘round peg’ holes of the curriculum, I feel that we do them an enormous injustice if we do not take the time to discover what really makes them tick. By forcing them to approach learning in a narrow way, we overlook the budding musicians, artists, sportsmen, engineers, and naturalists in our midst. 

 

It is my firm belief that children and young people should actually be out in the world, exploring, investigating, questioning and following their passions; true learning only occurs when a love of learning exists. Nature and the environment are so good for our mental health and wellbeing – the pandemic has certainly taught us how important it is to be outside, to feel the wind in our hair, the sun on our face and the rain splashing round our welly-clad feet. 

 

I would argue that creativity is the way forward. The ability to express ourselves in a way which makes sense to us as individuals, that boosts our self-esteem and brings satisfaction, is so important for our mental health and wellbeing. And this doesn’t just work for those children with life challenges; after all we are all human beings, we all thrive when we are happy and engaged, when we feel valued, when our voice is heard and when we are given the opportunity to play to our strengths. 

 

My passion for nature and creativity, experiential and hands-on learning, led me to create my teacher’s resource bank. A site which is full of creative ideas for writing and purposeful links throughout the curriculum. The resources are designed to inspire educators AND pupils to really become engaged in their learning; and, where you can’t visit a local river for example, I will bring the river to you in the form of virtual tours and video footage. 

 

For me, one young man sticks in my mind. A boy described by his teachers as disengaged, aggressive and un-cooperative. A boy who was in inclusion more than he was in the classroom. And yet, put that same boy in a river, with 20 other kids, looking for wildlife, catching small fish with a net and learning about the flora and fauna, you couldn’t have met a boy who was more engaged, less aggressive or less un-cooperative. So, it’s more a case of won’t than can’t in his case, and I firmly believe that given the right activities, and the best opportunities to thrive, then children will do just that… thrive. There wasn’t a pen and paper in sight on that river, we wrote nothing down, but you cannot tell me that he wasn’t learning, nor that he didn’t feel absolutely great because he was finally in a situation where he could excel. Not to mention the fact that he was out in nature, in the fresh air and being really active, which gave him neither the time nor the inclination to misbehave! 

 

Mental health is a hot topic at the moment, but it is no good adding it to the list of things to tick off and move on. Creative thinkers are tomorrow’s problem solvers; they have resilience, confidence and enthusiasm. As educators, we need to be brave enough to think outside of the box, to venture outside of the classroom and explore this beautiful planet we inhabit. Many of my resources include an element of mindfulness – taking time to think, to observe, to consider – and many of them aim to get young people into nature. The positive physical and psychological effects of movement and the great outdoors are plain to see. Nature can provide awe and wonder, it can enable exploration and investigation, as well as the space to be free. If good mental health and wellbeing is at the heart of everything we do, then great learning will follow! 

By Karen Stanley

By Karen Stanley

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