• Green spaces and being outdoors have been shown to reduce stress and improve sleep: both important components of good mental health

  • Andrew Millham, who volunteers for the Essex Wildlife Trust, shares his experience working with children outdoors

The term ‘therapeutic landscape’ was originally coined by the geographer Wilbert M. Gesler in the early 1990s. It describes a natural area that can offer mental and spiritual healing. There is an argument that through this mental healing, therapeutic landscapes can help people to heal physically as well. This idea has led to many people creating ‘therapeutic gardens’ in their homes or businesses – outdoor spaces designed to meet the needs of the people using the garden. They can include a number of features from a private sitting area for relaxation or contemplation, a small pond or even a trickling waterfall. All features that can increase positivity and mindfulness. These natural areas can be very effective in nursing homes or hospices, connecting vulnerable people with nature when they need it most. For the elderly in particular, research suggests that the natural environment improves quality and longevity of life.

All of us as humans are connected to nature and in pre-industrial times, we worked the land and spent a much longer time outside than most people do today. Therefore, it is intuitive that we must stay connected to the land for our own health and wellbeing – it is deeply rooted within us.

What are the benefits of nature and the outdoors?

Whilst it is true that exercise reduces stress by releasing ‘feel good’ hormones such as dopamine, simply being outside and amongst nature can provide many health benefits. Firstly, leaving your house for just 15 minutes will increase your Vitamin D intake – but be sure to use sun cream. Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, enabling the growth of quality bone and muscle. 

Surrounding yourself with nature can also boost creativity, which in itself will lead to increased motivation and positivity. Natural environments elevate people’s moods and improve concentration and alertness for the rest of the day. Similarly, studies show that going from an urban setting into a natural one instantly reduces stress and anxiety; psychologically, this is particularly helpful for those that measure highly in trait neuroticism. Spending time amongst wildlife by simply going for a short walk has been known to improve sleep, as it tires you out and the natural sunlight helps to realign your internal circadian rhythm.

There are new positive initiatives all over the UK called Care Farms, which focus on taking unprivileged children and young people from urban areas, into a farm setting – allowing them to experience the benefits described above. Here, they are taught useful land-based skills (horticulture and conservation), they can socialise with other young people, and they can experience the responsibilities of farm life. Caring for farm animals is a difficult task and requires focus, compassion and knowledge. The experiences gained by those who take part in the Care Farm initiatives can inspire learning, inflame curiosity, revive hope and allow children to reclaim their lives by promoting positive growth. Farms can certainly be classed as therapeutic landscapes, and are helping young people immensely.

My experience with therapeutic landscapes

Increasingly, the notion of therapeutic landscapes and the benefits that nature can offer are being embraced by the government and incorporated into the national curriculum. For example, Forest Schools are now widespread across the UK and allow children to run around and play in a woodland or other natural setting. Children can either use their imaginations and do as they wish, or they can learn to use tools e.g. a saw, fire striker etc. (under adult supervision), go bug hunting, build a den, or put up a rope swing. This mixture of free time and education is very effective.

Over the past year, I have volunteered with Essex Wildlife Trust and helped to lead a number of forest school sessions, either in schools or at one our Wildlife Trust Centres. As well as this, I have also carried out sessions for young carers. Helping with these sessions has been a very enriching experience and I have seen first-hand the benefits that nature has on the children. The sessions have improved my leadership and practical skills – although I still find some knots challenging! The children are free to run around in a safe and natural environment in which they can test themselves – it gives them the confidence and independence to do things for themselves, teaches them about wildlife and gives them all the benefits detailed in the previous session.

Spending time in nature is vital for our health and wellbeing. Although it is sometimes easy to overlook the benefits of the outdoors in our busy modern world, where there are so many distractions. I have written a poem called Busy England to try and capture the juxtaposition between our busy lives, and the calming serenity of nature. The poem expresses the importance of breaking routines and going outside – I hope you like it:

Busy England

Go out and see the peat bogs,

Saturated with last night’s rain.

Building into small streams,

Running into estuaries.

Find flocculated silt there,

Laminated and intimately packed,

In grey argillaceous flats and terraces.

Above and below North Sea bass,

In busy England.

There are numerous benefits to getting outside and making the most of your local patch, so I encourage you to do so – after all, just 15 minutes outside can make a huge difference. Similarly, help those around you who might be struggling with mental health by inviting them out. Go for a cycle, go for a run, or even go for a coffee! Anything to get them out and about. 

To me, it is no surprise that our health is tied so closely with the natural world – after all, we are a part of nature, and we must remember that.

Further reading

How green spaces reduce stress

How night running on the Fells simplifies my world

How gardening can protect mental health

Why being outside is so good for mental health

Reduce stress with these winter gardening tips