'Awepic' stories of greenery and the good life

Emma Davies (Oxford Brookes University) reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

‘Nature is awepic’, according to one of the children that Lucy Forbes from University of Westminster spoke to during her research to inform the development of a green exercise intervention to build resilience in children (it’s ‘awesome’ and ‘epic’).

Green exercise is physical activity undertaken while being exposed to nature. Forbes explained that children no longer interact with nature as much as they used to in the past, spending around 10 per cent of their time outside compared with 40 per cent 30 years ago. Worrying figures suggest that there are potentially three children in every classroom of 5-6-year-olds with a mental health issue, and 50 per cent of later problems are established between the ages of 10-14. Forbes hopes that her ethnographic work with schools that already have some green provision will help her to develop a theoretical framework to inform an intervention. From her observations so far, she has noticed the creative elements in children’s outdoor free play, such as building things from mud and wood, as well as the potential for enhanced social connections, which could be incorporated into an intervention.   

Other conference talks also highlighted the importance of the outdoors for our wellbeing, including Jo Brooks from the University of Huddersfield. She was awarded a small amount of funding to evaluate a charity which provides support for people in recovery from mental illnesses, providing green settings where people undertake activities as varied as beekeeping and tending to allotments. Brooks undertook a qualitative study to seek the views and experiences of charity staff and volunteers as well as organisations that hosted the volunteers. An important finding was that being labelled as a ‘volunteer’, rather than a ‘service user’, appeared to remove the stigma associated with mental health recovery. Furthermore, the individual benefits appeared to be invaluable: some volunteers who at first were unable even to travel independently to their placements were able to flourish with individual support. 

Staff at the charity strongly believed that the nature element of the project played a key role in these transformations. For example, undertaking a task in the outdoors had very different social benefits to simply attending a service users group in an indoor setting. Working on a focused task requires cooperation, but also allows for social connections to build in a less formal way than they would on a face-to-face basis. Brooks advocated the benefits of using a pragmatic qualitative approach to explore small-scale interventions, which are valued by policy makers and practitioner communities. She called for qualitative researchers to pool the findings of such projects in order to strengthen the case for continued funding for important community level interventions.

There are also clear benefits of volunteering your time to help within nature-based settings, as Jenny Mercer from Cardiff Metropolitan University explained. While most research explores benefits to patients, she focused on those giving their time to support the patients receiving ‘green care’. A huge range of positive outcomes were identified, including increased social connections and individual development. Mercer highlighted that volunteers may get similar benefits from other settings, but green care appeared to have additional impacts, such as feeling a connection with nature, opportunities for exercise, feeling peaceful and enjoying being out in the fresh air. She interviewed 33 people who were working in diverse settings such as within a care farm and an organic garden project. Participants were either young adults such as students, or retired people who had additional time. Mercer suggested that volunteers may experience similar therapeutic benefits to the service users, perhaps helping them to deal with the stresses and strains of everyday life. 

All three studies underscore the importance of qualitative research in broadening our understanding of the impacts of interventions in general. Randomised controlled trials are important for assessing and quantifying impacts and securing funding, but we should be mindful of what is lost when employing these designs. Qualitative research can tell powerful stories about meaningful changes to individual lives, and reveal facets of the experience that the researcher would struggle to measure. It is apparent from these studies that we should try to get out into nature much more as it could have a big impact on our wellbeing. 

- You can find lots more coverage from the Society's Annual Conference here, and coming up in the July print edition. Find out about our 2018 event

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber