Forest Schools boost for mental health

Back in 2018 we had the pleasure of working with Sarah Bennett, a local mum from Bolsover with a passion for introducing children to the great outdoors.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week we caught up with her to see how her passion has blossomed into a thriving forest school which is building confidence, friendships and a love for nature.

This video, made by 12-year-old Rhys, sums it up perfectly.

What have you been up to since we last spoke?

I’ve qualified as a Forest School practitioner and got a license for Whitwell Woods and Pleasley Pit. I have home educated children during the week for two days and I do a weekend group once every two weeks. That is open to any children aged from 5 to 12 years where the parents drop them off because they’re a little bit more free without the parent being there. I also do after school clubs at Cresswell and Bolsover junior schools.

What’s so special about forest school?

It’s just getting children outside. When I had my own children I realised there were lots of clubs going on but not necessarily outside unless it was for sport. When I did my training it opened up my eyes to children playing with natural stuff and nature and not having materialistic things inside.

We made bows and arrows at the weekend. Ordinarily a child’s thinking in the classroom might be, I went to Sherwood Forest and I bought a bow and arrow. Whereas we can show them this is a particular tree, you can use nature to make anything.

We do hoopla and make hoops out of holly. We stick sticks in the ground. It’s so simple. It just gets them thinking I don’t have to buy, I can just use my imagination and make this myself. We’ve also cooked with wild garlic where kids say, “we buy this from a shop” and I’m like, but it actually comes from nature. It’s getting them back to basics I guess.

We’ve come up with so much stuff outside when they get into that thought process. Yesterday was tools and one child made a dinosaur out of wood. One of them made a clock which was absolutely amazing and then he was like maybe I could put a battery in there. So I was like yeah maybe, that’s the next stage of thinking. We don’t actually say this is what we’re making today. I just give them a box of wood cut offs and the tools which they learn how to use safely.

How does nature benefit children?

I’ll give you an example. We have some autistic children who go to special schools, but they do still struggle. When they come to the wood, they’re so much calmer and if they do struggle it’s not massive because they’ve got the space. So I could just say, go and chill in a hammock. They’re not in four walls. So they have that freedom. There’s less pressure. You’re surrounded by trees and it’s just calming. There’s scientific evidence on that.

What impact does nature have on children’s mental health?

During Covid I’ve had an increase in enquiries about places for children because their anxiety is terrible. They’ve been cooped up indoors and they don’t want to go to school. It’s done them absolute wonders. I just get messages all the time saying, I don’t know what it is but just coming to you makes a huge difference. Yes, they are nervous and very anxious but within 10 minutes we go and check on them, they’re like, yes I’m fine. It’s just melted away. I think it is just the surroundings, it’s being outside.

We gather round the fire and we have reflection and we talk. But taking those four walls away and being outside just eases their anxieties. There’s no pressure, there’s no expectation. We’re not under a curriculum so we’re not looking at how they’re developing. And they learn so much outside.

We run all year round in all weather apart from high wind. Children learn that a rainy dull day doesn’t mean our mood must drop. They learn to be resilient and for weather not to affect our mood.

How do you support mental health at forest school?

The first sessions of every six week block we do a mental health session on friendship and mindfulness. It’s a lot of group work. We might do a group game and problem solving and talk about emotions and how we might manage those. We’ve found over time that we might have some children who are more emotional than others, then you get conflicts in friendship groups. So you have that session and time to nail that on the head and be quite open and it works really well.

At the end of each session we have reflection. We talk about our feelings and how to manage our emotions.

We’ve got some anxious children and we encourage them to be very open about that. Before Covid we had a child that started with us and she was so anxious her mum had to stay with her. She was the eldest child we had, she was nine-years-old. The mum gradually started to step away a little bit, but would still be in sight. She found it really hard but within six months she managed to stay off site.

I got to her during reflection and she said, I’m so proud of myself, this is the first time I’ve stopped without my mum. Everybody else was younger than her and they all clapped. There was no teasing or anything. She’s managed to go into senior school now and that’s the first time she’s ever started school. It’s really good for headspace. Being outside makes you think a bit more about yourself and how you are with other people.

It makes me feel like it’s worthwhile doing this, this is what I’m here for.

You can find out more about the Nature Explorers Derbyshire Forest School here or by emailing sarahbennettforestschool@gmail.com

 

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