I had been reflecting for some time on feedback I had been getting from adults attending my Forest School Training courses. Often they would say things like - 'this is the highlight of my week' or 'this time outdoors in nature keeps me going each week' - it was clear that the time spent outside was having a significant benefit on their well-being. This is nothing new with plenty of evidence on how time in natural spaces can benefit us in multiple ways. The often referenced 1993 study - by Ulrich and his colleagues at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden - showed how even a view of a natural space made a significant difference in patient recovery and well-being.
Over the years I have run a variety of activities for adults and children with a focus on getting them to take notice and interact with natural spaces and seen first hand the multiple benefits to their learning, development and well-being. I wanted to explore this further by seeing if a short intervention of time in a green space could significantly improve how someone was feeling on a given day. With this in mind I decided I wanted to trial some activities for key workers who would be experiencing significant stress in their work and who would particularly benefit from a proper outdoor break in a green space.
During 2020 I approached Southmead NHS Trust to set up some trial drop-in lunch time sessions for staff on their main hospital site. These were promoted to all staff across the site as small group sessions that they booked on to in advance. A series of sessions were run from August to the end of the year at lunchtime on a space that was fairly central on the hospital site.
Prior to the sessions I had met with Esther Coffin-Smith, Sustainable Development Manager, to look at the range of green spaces across the site. Southmead Hospital Trust has done considerable work to identify and improve green spaces on its site and has published a map to support staff to use these spaces. A key challenge has been encouraging staff to use them on a regular basis and develop a sense of connection to the spaces. We chose a space that was not overlooked, was away from roads and was fairly quiet. A further key factor that I was also looking for was that it had some good size trees and some wilder corners that would offer different spaces to explore as well as a range of natural materials that we could use for activities.
My approach when working with groups for the first time, as was the case here, was to ease them into the space we were in by getting them to do some simple moving around and exploring and taking notice by looking for particular colours, shapes or textures. After a couple of activities like this I would get them to sit by or near a tree in a spot they had chosen to listen to the natural sounds they could hear. Then I used further sensory or creative activities with a focus on breathing and being present while trying to create some separation from participants thoughts and the working day they had stepped away from.
For some that had attended I got the feeling it had been a challenge to find the time and they had rushed over with a lot going on under the surface. I could see them visibly relax during the session and slow down as they progressed through the guided activities. I felt really pleased that everyone that came found the session useful and enjoyable registering an improvement in their well-being and providing positive feedback. Almost all staff commented that they would like to do something similar again and would recommend the experience to colleagues. There was some great feedback - including:
I have now completed a short report (you can click on it below) on the activities and have looked at recommendations for taking this further and will be exploring how I can make this happen. I feel these experiences are so valuable in supporting and improving people's health and well-being particularly those who have had a high level of challenge in their work.
Jon Attwood has been leading outdoor activities in the wider Bristol area for over 20 years. He developed a passion for nature and a love of the outdoors as a child and was lucky to have a free range childhood with plenty of time exploring wild corners of rural Essex. Jon is a Forest School leader and trainer and is happiest in the woods sharing experiences with children and adults.