Origins of the forest experience project
I saw it all in the easy smile spreading across her face, as Natasha* found herself, however briefly, feeling happy, confident – perhaps, even, that she was back to her former self? Whatever it was, it shone from her face, and for the briefest time, in the woods, she seemed connected, content and comforted.
Aged 17, Natasha had been finding life challenging. Demanding family circumstances and increased responsibilities outside of college were creating incredible pressure and stress for her, which had led to missed deadlines, below average work output, lower attendance and disconnection from her small, but fiercely loyal, group of friends. All this from a young woman with previously excellent grades, a strong work ethic and a compassionate nature. The hour-and-a-half she had just spent in Coalbrookdale Woods, using mindfulness and forest bathing activities, demonstrated the power of nature to reconnect and relieve tension.
I could testify to my own experience of this phenomenon, but even I was staggered by the tangible physical difference I witnessed in one person as a result of spending time connecting to her own senses and nature, in a woodland environment. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. After all, this project had arisen from observing my own son’s behaviour, in the same woods, with his pre-school, a Reggio Emilia nursery, renowned for its outdoor approach, and leaning heavily towards the Scandinavian style of early-years schooling.1 Often overshadowed by his older sister, in the woods, my four-year-old son took charge – and I was struck by how confident and capable he was in this environment.
Research from the Forestry Commission testifies to the success of forest schools in developing confidence, motivation and concentration.2 The Forest School Association describes the principles of forest school as the use of outdoor woodland space for regular sessions, developing a relationship between learner and natural world, using learner-centred approaches to promote resilience, confidence, independence and creativity, and including some elements of taking calculated risks.3
Often, these sessions are a regular part of the school week, led by a specialist teacher. However, children’s forest school experiences generally occur only up to key stage one. Once a young person reaches the age of seven, their official forest school experience is ad hoc at best, or reliant on participation in voluntary organisations such as Brownies and Cubs, and family outings. This may leave many young people spending more time indoors, using devices for their entertainment. Once they have become teenagers, their familiarity with and confidence in woodland environments may have all but disappeared.
As we witness a significant increase in mental health issues for young people,4,5 it is perhaps unfortunate that their forest experiences end so early in their lives. The reintroduction of forest experiences as a tool for supporting mental wellness is supported by a recent Guardian article,6 which reports that research from Kings College, London concluded that exposure to trees, sky and birdsong improved mental wellbeing.7 The article states that two hours a week is the optimum time to spend in woodland in order to gain maximum benefit, and suggests that forest bathing could even be offered through ‘social prescribing’ within the National Health Service.
So, could a reintroduction to forest experiences help improve the wellbeing of young people?
I am a lecturer in travel and tourism at Shrewsbury Colleges Group in Shropshire, teaching 16 to 19 year olds. I also teach on education programmes and support colleagues through training and coaching. Each year, the learning coaches are asked to develop a project based on an area of interest. After completing my coaching qualification, I was particularly interested in using coaching techniques to help young people with building tools for resilience, creating positive life goals and supporting their holistic development. Sessions have included growth mindset, visualisation, and goal setting through a classic coaching GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, Will) model in classroom groups. However, I wanted to try something new.
My students at the college are of mixed backgrounds and academic ability, and are at a stage in life where they have lots of choices and decisions to make, which can be both challenging and stressful. They often work long hours in their part-time jobs, in addition to their college coursework, and have a high dependency on mobile phones and social media.
Having observed the changes in my own son in a woodland environment, I decided to open up a discussion on forest school experiences with my own tutor group of young people in the college. Half the group had experienced forest school in their primary schools and remembered it fondly. Equally, they were keen to experience it again as young adults, with a view to providing some form of ‘stress-busting’ relaxation.
Next in this issue
My own forest experience
Following this initial enthusiasm, I made contact with the community development officer at Severn Gorge Countryside Trust8, Cadi Price, to discuss my project and plans. Fortunately, she was in the process of creating a four-week training course in mindfulness in nature and forest bathing. This allowed me to directly experience these approaches in supporting mental health and wellbeing. The sessions were made up of small numbers of participants, with various motivations for getting involved. Sally, a retired school teacher and educational psychologist, led the mindfulness in nature section of the walk. Jan, with a background in physiotherapy, and specialising in Bowen therapy, led the forest bathing activities.
Forest bathing, or the Japanese cultural practice of shinrin yoku, is described by the Forest Bathing Institute UK as ‘mindful time spent under the canopy of trees for health and well-being purposes.’9
The forest bathing rules were clear: stay silent – in your own space; turn off phones; avoid labelling the nature you observe.
Sally and Jan’s calm enthusiasm was infectious, and before long we were silently trusting strangers to guide us through the woods, and offer us twigs to feel and plants to smell, as we walked, with our eyes closed, listening to the symphony of the woodland. My own experience was profound. I found my place and my ground again, and early memories flooded back, prompted by the smells of moss and woodland soil.
In the fourth and final session, we were invited to scan the woods and allow ourselves to be drawn to a tree. My tree had two smaller trees growing out from within its root space, where squirrels had buried a forgotten seed. I found myself creating a metaphor from the tree’s life to my own. My tree was sheltering and supporting the younger, smaller trees to prosper and grow strong.
Without doubt, this was an emotional session for me, and led me to consider that, with the additional support of a coach guide, in a one-to-one session, this would have opened up an incredible vision for my future. I knew that, managed in the right way, this was a golden opportunity for young adults to reconnect with their inner child, with nature and to find a new approach to destressing their lives.
Students’ forest experience
As an induction to the forest session, Cadi and I agreed that meeting the group in their natural environment (the classroom) prior to their visit to Coalbrookdale Woods, made sense. I created an indoor forest session, using pictures, poems and quotes, to seed discussion. Dividing the class into small groups, Cadi and I helped the students to investigate their thoughts on forest experiences and what they hoped to achieve from the session outside.
We arrived at the Countryside Trust’s offices on a dry November day, wearing (mostly) the right gear. One pair of bright white Converse trainers was swapped for a spare pair of wellies. After initial giggles at the relaxation activity, I was relieved and pleased with how well the students managed to follow the ground rules of being silent, and turning off their phones. By the time we arrived at an activity that involved being guided, eyes closed, along a path, surrendering trust to a walking partner, and using all other senses to understand the environment, the students were hooked, responding to Cadi’s questions with frank, honest accounts of their experiences. When asked to collect items of nature that attracted them and drew them in, some even offered metaphors for what each item represented in their lives. Creatively, they framed these items to create pictures on the ground. At this point, I was desperate to pull out my phone so I could capture the students’ pictures; however, the rules are the rules, and so the pictures were simply recorded to memory. Finally, Cadi invited the students to observe the trees around them, walk towards a tree they felt drawn to; to touch, look, listen and consider the life of the tree, and get to understand it. By this stage, the students were so involved, it took no time at all for the trees to be hugged.
The session was rounded up with shared hot chocolate and biscuits, sitting on logs, taking pictures and chatting about the session, as well as the latest news on social media. But for an hour-and-a-half, these young people were immersed in the woods and had experienced first-hand the sensations nature could offer them, if they were only to stop for a while, put down their phones and breathe.
Can coaches, counsellors and educators use forest experiences to help build and support the development of resilience, confidence and self-esteem for teenagers and young adults?
Following on from my students’ session, I asked the participants to complete an evaluation of the afternoon. This highlighted a clear desire to complete more sessions, and so we have agreed to visit different woods, seasonally. Our winter walk took place in February this year, with spring and summer walks planned for later in the year. Using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale each time, I hope to demonstrate sustained improvements over the year.
In addition, I intend to create one-to-one coaching sessions, inspired by Catherine Gorham’s article in the October 2019 issue of this journal, where she discussed the use of ‘nature as dynamic co-partner’.10 Catherine provides many examples of research to support the use of nature within our practices, and the practical application of nature in coaching.
Contemplating the impact of the forest experience had led me to research the benefits of forest school to early years learners, and whether this could be translated for teenagers and young adults. We are currently at a crossroads, with the acknowledged increase in mental health issues for young people, while at the same time, culturally and socially, there is a drive to improve our environment and plant more trees, creating more woods.
Could we develop a more structured approach to coaching in a forest environment? Could we devise more courses and activities to benefit young adults to improve their mental wellbeing, and provide tools for their long-term resilience and self-esteem? Could forest school be on the curriculum for teenagers in the future?
Gary Evans, from the Forest Bathing Institute UK, describes the benefits of forest bathing as ‘looking at nature’s patterns [helps] to stop thoughts spinning in the head’.9
He goes on to cite research at the Nippon Medical School, Japan, which found 50 per cent of the benefits (of forest bathing) came from the chemistry in the forest. Increased oxygen, through photosynthesis of carbon dioxide, makes the air clean. The research also states that phytoncides, which are produced by trees for their own immune systems, can also boost the human immune system.12
Forestry England describes the benefits of forest bathing as ‘The simple method of being calm and quiet amongst the trees, observing nature around you whilst breathing deeply … can help both adults and children de-stress and boost health and wellbeing in a natural way.’13
The organisation has created a number of wellbeing resources to support teachers in using the woods for this purpose. Tributes to Trees, for example, is an excellent resource for activity ideas.
The Forest School Association states that: ‘Forest School is an inspirational process that offers all learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees.’3
These opportunities are surely equally as important to teenagers as to early years learners, and developing the provision for teenagers and young adults within the forest school movement would be a significant development.
1 For more information see The British Association for Early Childhood Education. [Online.] www.early-education.org.uk/reggio-emilia.
2 O’Brian E, Murray R. A participatory evaluation of forest school in England and Wales. Forest Research, 2006.
4 NHS Digital. Mental health of children and young people in England, 2017. NHS; November 2018.
5 The Children’s Commissioner. The state of children’s mental health services. January 2020.
6 Sherwood H. Getting back to nature: how forest bathing can make us feel better. The Guardian, 8 June 2019.
7 Bakolis I, Hammoud R, Smythe M, Gibbons J, Davidson N, Tognin S, Mechelli A. Urban mind: using smartphone technologies to investigate the impact of nature on mental well-being in real time. BioScience 2018; 68(2): 134–145. [Online.] https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/bix149
10 Gorham C. Nature as dynamic co-partner: beyond the ‘walk-and-talk’ experience. Coaching Today 2019; 32/October: 20–24.
11 Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS). NHS Health Scotland, University of Warwickshire and University of Edinburgh; 2006.
12 Li Q. Does nature affect human immune function? Nippon Medical School, Tokyo. 27 May 2011. [Online.] http://www.metla.fi/tapahtumat/2011/ human-health/pdf/Qing_Li.pdf