Last month the Woodland Trust urged doctors to prescribe forest bathing – the Japanese practice of taking contemplative walks through the woods – for conditions such as anxiety and depression.
In fact, researchers think making time to get outdoors could be essential to keeping healthy. Studies show outdoor time lowers blood pressure, improves short-term memory and helps the body fight off illnesses. A King’s College London study even found that hearing birdsong improves mental wellbeing.
But not everyone can take a stroll through the countryside when they feel like it. Earlier this year the Campaign to Protect Rural England found that the higher an area’s poverty level, the less likely its residents were to have access to areas of natural beauty. In 2016, researchers discovered that more than one in nine children had not been to a park or forest in at least a year, with low income and BAME kids particularly affected.
And in 2017, Cambridge University researchers were dismayed to find that British children are better at identifying Pokémon than they are plants or wildlife.
Adapting to nature can be fun
There’s a well-documented lack of provision to help disabled people enjoy the outdoors – but the Calvert Trust is changing that. The charity takes people with physical, behavioural, sensory and learning disabilities on outdoor adventure holidays that help them build self-confidence and gain greater independence.
“People with and without disabilities motivate each other to do new things,” says Hannah Furber, sales and marketing manager at the trust’s Exmoor centre in North Devon. “Some guests struggle to communicate their feelings [but] the emotion, exhilaration and achievement felt during activities are clear. It’s what you can do that counts.”
At Exmoor they can try horse riding, canoeing, abseiling and climbing using adapted equipment. While getting their adrenalin pumping participants also make new friends, learn new skills and boost their physical and mental wellbeing. “By the time they leave, our guests have created wonderful memories and accomplished far more than they had ever dreamed possible,” Furber adds.
But the benefits continue long after a visit. Some people who have spent time at one of the trust’s three centres say they feel better equipped to overcome the depression, discrimination and exclusion they face in their daily lives.
Fourteen-year-old Gemma, who has cerebral palsy and is a full-time wheelchair user, has visited Exmoor with her mother Debbie four times. “Archery, with the adapted bow, was amazing,” Debbie said after their latest trip to Exmoor. “Gemma did a great job concentrating and was totally delighted with how she did. One of her favourite things was going fast on the bikes. She just kept telling me to
But one of the real highlights of Gemma’s weekend was meeting new people – who could relate to parts of her own lived experience – and making lots of friends.
“Even as a full-time wheelchair user, all the activities were achievable. There was no onlooking for Gemma,” her mum said. “It was a brilliant weekend. Gemma enjoyed every moment of it, whether cheering others on during activities, in the forest learning bushcraft skills and toasting marshmallows over the fire, partying at the disco in the evening or just having meals together.”
Going wild transforms futures
At Venture Scotland, the outdoors is considered a place of transformation. For 30 years the Edinburgh charity’s volunteers have been leading disadvantaged young people on year-long intensive personal development programmes that revolve around the power of nature.
Every year, 100 people aged between 16 and 30 start off the journey getting to know each other in a bothy in the Scottish Borders. Most on the programme have struggled to access employment, training or education. Over the next 14 weeks they’re taken gorge walking, canoeing and on challenging wilderness trips, including a five-day canoe trip up Glen Etive in the western Highlands, until they enter the leadership stage of their journey – which means planning and leading activity days for others.
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Will Linden, co-deputy director of Police Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit, says he and his colleagues “hold Venture Scotland in the highest regard” after witnessing first hand how effective the charity’s work is.
It’s hoped that the rigorous (but fun) programme will boost participants’ self-confidence and problem-solving skills and ultimately help them create a positive future for themselves. And at the end of it all, the charity links participants up with partners who can help them brush up their CV and interview skills or get them into a supported work placement.
Mary, 24, was one of the young people who got involved. She says her time on the programme taught her how to trust people and how to solve problems, calling Venture Scotland “the family [she] never had”.
Crucially, the charity provides all the transport, accommodation, food and outdoor clothing participants need to ensure no one is held back by poverty or accessibility issues.
Conquering mountains of the mind
Venture Scotland’s focus on self-confidence resembles the approach taken by Sophie Radcliffe, fitness blogger and founder of TrailBlazers. The organisation, in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust, uses the transformative power of outdoor adventure to tackle poor mental health in teenage girls across London and Kent. As well as a series of workshops and talks given by Radcliffe, the programme culminates in an adventure camp where the girls are challenged to put everything they learned into practice.
“The outdoors is the most incredible place to challenge yourself and learn about who you are, to test yourself against nature,” says Radcliffe, 33.
“I really struggled with body confidence growing up, but once I started working outdoors I realised I don’t need to look like girls in magazines because my body can go and climb mountains, it can do marathons. It’s really powerful to give a young woman access to that kind of thinking.”
The TrailBlazers programme also takes time to show people what outdoor space is available for free in their local area, understanding that many would never have had the opportunity to go exploring.
Disadvantaged teenage girls are less likely to have been involved in sports, too, so they’re encouraged to take advantage of the adventure and test out their hiking skills.
TrailBlazers is now on a quest for funding to roll the programme out to more schools, and to allow Radcliffe to develop a similar programme for boys, for which there is high demand.
“Forget your job or your Instagram followers,” Radcliffe continues. “When you’re climbing a mountain, nature doesn’t care about any of those things. All that matters is who you are when things get tough.”
Many of the 100 girls Radcliffe has worked with so far had never left London before, the founder explains, and some were “genuinely blown away” by their first sight of the sea or a sunrise.
Rebuilding broken young lives
It’s a similar story at KidsOut, a charity that started as a day trip for children organised by Kingston Rotary Club 30 years ago. Now, volunteers take more than 50,000 children who may have escaped domestic violence, been excluded from school or have been socially isolated on fun and enriching days out every year. That can be anything from the cinema to a theme park but, says fundraising director Stewart Moulds, the trips that allow children to explore the outdoors are often the ones that have truly powerful effects.
“Getting the kids to do stuff they normally wouldn’t get to do shouldn’t be underestimated,” he says. “Plenty of them have never been to the beach before we take them, or had a chance to run through the woods. Experiences like that create positive change for children, as well as giving them something to look forward to as we try to take them out more than once.”
Based in Leighton Buzzard, just outside Milton Keynes, the charity’s 10 members of staff coordinate with volunteers to put on events and activities for the children.
“It was the best day of my life! I have never had so much fun. I look like a paint brush with all the colour in my hair!”
— KidsOut (@KidsOut) June 25, 2019
Lynn got involved with KidsOut when she and her son fled to a refuge after escaping verbal and financial abuse. “When my husband came home we were always on edge and you never had any freedom – it wasn’t very often we got to go outside,” she says.
“My son wasn’t very confident before, and KidsOut did a lot for him. And while at the refuge they did a lot to help my son and me. We went to events like a Saracens [rugby] match and days out exploring the woods.
“Just leaving home was a big deal in the beginning. Being in an abusive relationship for so many years, my son was a bit fragile. He had gone into his shell and he didn’t talk much. He was very quiet and was traumatised with everything that happened. So by getting the chance to explore the woods and farms with him, he grew in confidence. He was happier.
“Now, since we’ve moved on, my son is doing very good in school; it’s like a transformation. [Thanks to] all the things that KidsOut did for us, he is now a different person.”
Navigating back from the edge
The Tall Ships Youth Trust (TSYT) swaps rolling hills for choppy waves and salty air – and it has already impacted The Big Issue. The UK’s oldest sail training charity works with disadvantaged young people to develop their transferrable skills as well as completing sailing certificates.
Many of the young people who sail with the trust are marginalised by society and struggle to access opportunities such as employment, education or training. With the TSYT, people can do everything from simple cooking and cleaning onboard to taking on the responsibility of steering a yacht on the ocean.
Earlier this year, 43-year-old Bath vendor James Heaton was offered the chance to join the TSYT in a bid to boost his confidence, teamwork and problem-solving skills. In May he set sail from Portsmouth and hit the high seas on a four-day voyage across the English Channel.
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He joined an adult crew as they travelled across to Cherbourg before navigating the Channel Islands and stopping off at Alderney to explore. His journey was sponsored by a Big Issue supporter in Bath who thought it would be a good way to build confidence in vendors.
“I learned how much more complicated a yacht is to sail than I thought,” said James, who sells the magazine outside the Ivy Brasserie in Bath. “It’s not just about the sailing, it’s the washing up, the cooking dinner – it’s all about mucking together and working as a team to keep everything running efficiently.
“I relearned life skills that I am trying to apply to my everyday life. For example, this morning I forced myself to do the washing up before I went out! It’s very motivational and I learned team-building skills and what it means to be a cog in a bigger machine.”