Blog post

Exploring wild spaces and wellbeing with young people

Growing levels of childhood obesity, increasing amounts of screen time and rising reports of mental health issues in children and young people have become a cause for concern. In this blog, Jenny Hallam, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, looks at the benefits of nature and outdoor play in tackling these problems.

By Dr Jenny Hallam - 21 September 2018

Children’s engagement with nature and outdoor play is decreasing. Urbanisation and fears for children’s safety have both reduced the space that children can freely roam in and their opportunities to play in wild spaces.

Research suggests that this disengagement with nature is potentially harmful as nature connectedness has been shown to support all aspects of human wellbeing, from physical health to life satisfaction. The importance of allowing children to connect with nature is highlighted in Louv’s concept of nature-deficit disorder, which proposes that interventions are needed to encourage children to reconnect to nature because of the benefits it has for their health, development, social and emotional wellbeing.

One way to encourage connection with nature is to enable children and young people to engage with the mundane nature which surrounds them. This could be nature found in undeveloped spaces, such as river banks, accidental nature in abandoned spaces, cultivated nature, such as rooftop gardens, or nature on display in parks.

Reconnecting children with local wild spaces

I recently worked on a project designed to reconnect young people from a disadvantaged area to a local, disused semi-wild space. The project was run by Feral Spaces and funded by the Canal and River Trust. During the project, seven young people from an academy school in Staffordshire, aged between 10 and 11, spent two hours per week over three weeks exploring and developing an area close to their school. Each session was led by the young people and had a different focus.

In the first session, the young people identified specific areas that they wanted to work in to create a den. The second session centred on the construction of dens, swings, hammocks and benches. In the final session, activities turned to collecting clay-like mud to make den creatures and using spray paints to create signs for the den areas.

The benefits of nature on children’s skills and confidence

Analysis of the sessions revealed a range of benefits centring on learning and mastering new skills, connecting to nature and developing a growing awareness and attachment to the space. The child-centred approach taken by the Feral Spaces facilitators was key in allowing the young people to take ownership of the space from the start.

The young people responded well to being in a position of control and grew in confidence as their ideas were listened to and acted upon. By working closely with the young people, Feral Spaces practitioners were able to teach the range of skills needed to create the dens, such as how to tie knots and saw wood. By the end of the intervention, many of the children had mastered these skills and learned how to manage risk to complete construction in a safe way.

The construction of the dens also drew the young people’s attention to the environment they were working in. They were able to climb trees, investigate and learn about the kinds of fungus growing on them and identify different types of plant and bird species. A growing engagement with the space offered the young people opportunity to learn about its history and take time to appreciate the beauty of the nature that surrounded them. This led to a growing respect and awareness of the wildlife in the area and desire to protect their habitat.

Educational, social and emotional benefits

At the end of the project, it was clear that the young people were incredibly proud of what they had achieved. One of them brought her father and uncle back to the space to show them what she had built. This led to her family members sharing their memories of the space and an opportunity for bonding.

There was also evidence of growing friendship bonds between the young people who participated in the project, which continued when they returned to school. Consequently, the project led to several positive outcomes: from an educational perspective, the young people had mastered several new skills and learned about nature; socially, they had developed new friendships and strengthened family connections; and emotionally, they had developed their levels of confidence, had fun and experienced the freedom to roam and explore.

Longer-term nature connectedness

At the end of each session, the young people were reluctant to leave the space and many of them expressed interest in returning to the area when the project was over. Attachment to the space and a desire to return to it points towards a potential long-term benefit of the intervention. The sense of place and belonging created during the project was important, and it is hoped that the project will have a lasting impact upon the young people and the area.

Through developing the space, the young people gained a stronger sense of community and ownership of the area they had been working in. As such, they now have a local place they can use to meet, socialise, have fun and engage with nature in a meaningful way. This could help them work towards membership of a community made up of other like-minded young people.

Top 5 tips to help your child connect to nature

1) Encourage your child to notice and engage with the nature around them. Nature can be found everywhere – from wild spaces through to parks, gardens and window boxes. You could point out examples of nature – such as trees – as you travel to and from school. This helps your child connect to everyday nature that is accessible to them.

2) Invite your child to talk about nature. Draw their attention to the seasons by pointing out changing colours and foliage. You don’t need to be a botanical expert, just encourage your child to talk about what they can observe. You also don’t need to go to a special area – look at the examples of nature around you on the school run.

3) Give your child space to roam. Children love to explore. When you are in an outdoor space, let them ‘lead expedition’. Follow them as they understand the space and discover it for themselves.

4) Set challenges. Children love to collect things. When you are out on a walk, ask your child to collect something specific such as acorns or simply ask them to collect things that capture their interest. Ask them about what they have collected and why.

5) Play in nature. Children love hide and seek, den building, tree climbing and stone skimming. Take time to have fun with your children outside.

Find out more about the wider work of the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group.

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About the author

Dr Jenny Hallam
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Jenny is a critical Developmental Psychologist who specialises in qualitative methods. Jenny has a long-standing research interest in the arts and exploring the ways in which the co-production of artwork in educational settings shapes children’s understanding and experiences of the visual arts.

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