Reconnecting Students with Nature - BearMade

Reconnecting Students with Nature

Last week we helped over 100 people connect with nature. It was awesome.

In 2005, Richard Louv - author of Last Child in the Woods - coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder. He was highlighting that our alienation from the natural world causes higher rates of physical and emotional illness, diminished use of our senses, and a decline in focus and attention. A National Trust report from 2012 highlighted how children are losing contact with nature at an alarming rate - due to the rise in traffic, the use of video screens, and parental concerns about letting their children roam outdoors in the wild. In 2015 the Oxford Children's dictionary dropped 50 words relating to nature (including fern, willow, acorn, bluebell) in favour of broadband and cut and paste. And yet it is proven that students learn more, and behave better when lessons are conducted outdoors; that being in green spaces and particularly blue/green spaces lowers stress, boosts mood and improves self-esteem. 

For a second year, BearMade/The Wildish Club were invited back to City Plymouth College (CPC) to run outdoor connection workshops in their small woodland. In 2021 we ran a 6-hour workshop with a group of teachers facilitating how they could use nature/the outdoors as a part of their lessons to improve concentration, retention and facilitate learning. For 2022 we were asked to run 5 workshops for students across a number of departments, including health and social care, hair and beauty, mechanics, engineering, English as a second language (ESOL), and mature students undertaking maths to access higher education; on the benefits of nature for improving well-being, focus and reducing stress. 

CPC resides in an area, where local students, are some of the most disadvantaged in the country. A large proportion of students have learning difficulties and varying levels of anxiety. Many had not been to the woodlands on-site. Some didn't even know it was there. 

The workshop had two sessions: “you can’t learn when you are distracted” led by Moj, and “you can’t learn when you are stressed” led by Nell. 

You can’t learn when you are… distracted:

This session ran through the theme, and demonstrated the power of storytelling and being outdoors. Moj started off telling the students about a hilarious trip to Sri Lanka, drawing parts of the story out on the ground, adding elements of drama and humour and weaving various numbers and facts into his tale. He then tested the students to see how many of these facts they could remember. In all groups, students retained about 90% of the information with many amazed at just how much they could remember. 

Moj then highlighted how for most of our history, we have existed in tight-knit tribes, bonding over survival tasks, sharing emotions, processing thoughts, and expressing ourselves...this was the birth, over 1,000s of years, of language and art, of which stories are the core. 

Our brains access information via stories, associations and patterns, and we have the capacity to absorb these powerfully and reinforce the information by telling it to others. This is a model for good learning; some call it the hear, see, do, teach model. 

It has also been shown that we have more than the traditional 5 senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell), potentially up to 30. Nature engages a large proportion of our senses at one time and this has been associated with a greater ability to learn, assess and retain information. 

You can’t learn when you are… stressed:

This session was focused on how we as humans experience stress, what happens to our bodies and minds when we are stressed and how nature can be used as an effective tool to decrease and manage stress. 

A brain is a phenomenal tool, but it is limited in its responses to and its interpretation of stress. It cannot tell the difference between imagined fear/pain and real fear/pain. The same stress response is evoked in both scenarios. 

Our stress response or ‘fight, flight or freeze’ is an evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us alive, e.g. running from a lion. However, in the modern-day, this response is being triggered multiple times a day by social media, the news, traffic, exams etc. Nell then went through what happens in your body when this response is triggered and why focus and concentration decline. 

She then led two different activities; a coherent breathing exercise which calms the nervous system, and a forest bathing type exercise to help connect and engage students with their surroundings. 

Being in nature reduces cortisol (stress hormone) and boosts self-esteem and mood. It is proven that just 5 minutes in an outdoor setting can stimulate these effects. 

Running these workshops at CPC was an incredibly fun and humbling experience. We had some amazing feedback and were blown away by some of the responses from students, and hopefully, we will be back again next year. 

Some feedback that really made us smile: 

“There are more people than I think like me.”

“It was scary at first but then calming and relaxing, it helped my fibromyalgia and the pain. Thank you”

“Great advice about how to deal with mental stress. Learning about nature, how to calm the mind, breathing techniques. Very interesting and really enjoyed it. Thank you.”

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