In a guest blog for us as part of Mental Health Awareness Week Claire Teeling from Grow Outside CIC explains what we can do to make the most of nature.
Working at a range of venues across Derbyshire, Grow Outside CIC’s mission is to care for the environment by encouraging people to get outdoors and thrive amongst plants and nature. We use the skills of staff and volunteers to raise awareness, develop skills, and help people to look after their own well-being and that of the planet. We run projects that provide skills and practical activities, workshops for a range of audiences, and sell plants and flowers to support community projects. Since 2016, we have delivered outdoor wellbeing activities to groups including young people at risk of offending, older adults and dementia sufferers, those experiencing mental ill-health and social isolation, young carers, and community groups open to all.
I didn’t have the best experience of secondary education and, once I left further education, I didn’t know how to progress with insufficient qualifications and experience. Luckily, I met some incredibly supportive people through part time work, and I went on to study horticulture. I continued into higher education, though university had never been described as an option throughout my time at school, and I eventually completed a PhD in plant conservation. I knew I loved plants and nature, and I benefitted from spending time outdoors, but was fortunate in the people I met who supported me. My aim now, using environmental education and nature connection, is to help others seek out meaningful opportunities in life when perhaps none seem open to them, or they lack the confidence to do so.
At Grow Outside we encourage people to look after nature and learn how to care for the environment. In doing so, we want to help look after the planet, whilst supporting people to gain confidence and fulfil their potential.
Connecting with nature wherever you are
If you have a garden or are happy to walk in the countryside, accessing the natural world is easy but, if you don’t, even being able to see trees or greenery is good for your mental health. If this isn’t an option, houseplants on a window ledge or balcony growing can have the same effect. E.O.Wilson’s theory of biophilia states that our relationship with nature is hard-wired into our DNA, and being in nature can help lift our mood; even imagining walking in the woods, for example, can make us feel less stressed.
Get active outdoors
Physical activity in nature, as well as improving connection, lifts mood, increases alertness and can reinvigorate. Find any greenspace near you and go for a walk – many people have access to a local park – and see what plants and animals can be found there. Walking or gardening can help to improve overall fitness as well as specific muscle groups and coordination. These can also be mindful activities, where just losing yourself in the moment can help you forget about any thoughts clouding your mind.
Growing things, whether for visual impact or food is hugely satisfying. Many plants can be grown from seed and there is something for every size and type of growing space. We have a growing for wellbeing group where people share their ideas, and interesting things they’ve seen outdoors or grown (Grow Outside – virtual gardening for wellbeing group | Facebook).
Look at (and after) wildlife
Take time to notice and appreciate the natural world around you, from the smallest insect going about its business, to the beauty and complexity of flowers. Observing the grandeur and awe of trees can help to centre our tiny existence in the universe and take focus away from everyday concerns. Creating bug hotels or wildlife ponds (or joining a conservation group) will help to protect habitats and bring you closer to nature.
Use all your senses
Being indoors all the time means we don’t always make the most of our senses. Just sitting in nature and doing nothing except watching the world go by can give feelings of calm and relaxation. In our community growing projects, what some members of the groups appreciate most are the textures, smells and sounds of nature, as well as the space that being outdoors offers them. This stimulates and energises and there’s nothing better than getting your hands dirty for feeling connected to the earth and putting worries into perspective.
Getting out of the house, even just for a cup of tea, is a challenge for some, and making a social connection benefits many attendees at our projects. People like the routine of coming every week and even those who struggle in social situations still appreciate being part of a group that doesn’t make them feel pressured. Community groups and activities increase social interaction and can help make places feel more welcoming. Outdoor activities are also a great way to get to know your neighbours and build community.
Learn, or share, something new
Grow Outside is all about sharing knowledge and information for the wellbeing of people and the planet. Continued learning is good for confidence and self esteem, and there’s always something to learn about gardening. No one ever knows it all and plants are endlessly fascinating. A member of our Ripley group says: “You feel like you need to have green fingers, as if it’s magic, but it’s not at all, it’s basic stuff”. Giving is also a big part of growing, people who give to others report greater happiness themselves and, in my experience, gardeners are never happier than when gifting something they’ve grown from seed or propagated themselves.
Feeling a small part of a big system
Observing the seasons and watching the plants grow can help us remember our tiny place in the world and put problems into perspective. We see that everything changes, and that if things don’t work out for a plant, it is often outside forces like the weather that are the issue. People can relate this to their mental health: not all things are within our control, including feelings, and tomorrow will be different from today.
Grow Outside projects hope people will leave their concerns at the gate and (sometimes) soak up the sun.