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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 28/04/2009 | 1 Comment

The psychologist Theodore Roszac once pointed out that if you ask someone who is highly stressed to imagine a relaxing scene they are likely to think of being in nature – on the beach, in the hills, on the banks of a burn.  So it is hardly surprising that there is now burgeoning psychological research on the importance of nature to human health and functioning. What is more surprising is that it has taken us so long to twig this simple fact. After all those who designed the old psychiatric hospitals deliberately surrounded them with parklands or fields, not just so the inmates would be out of site (‘round the bend’) but also because previous generations understood that being in a green environment has a calming and soothing effect. Our grannies and mothers also knew how important it is for us to get out into the fresh air.

Theodore Roszak, author of The Voice of the Earth and one of the  founders of the ‘ecopysychology movement’  explains why it has taken so long for nature to be given its rightful place in psychology:

Western psychology has limited the definition of mental health to the interpersonal context of an urban industrial society: marriage, family, work, school, community. All that lies beyond the citified psyche has  seemed of no human relevance – or perhaps too frightening to think about. “Nature,” Freud dismally concluded is “eternally remote. She destroys us – coldly, cruelly, relentlessly.” Whatever else has been revised and rejected in Freud’s theories, this tragic sense of estrangement from nature continues to haunt psychology, making the natural world remote and hostile.

Traditionally psychology has thus denied the importance of the world to mental health, focusing instead on the individual’s subjective state. If the individual is mentally unhealthy then this is seen as the result of the individual’s thoughts and emotions which must be ‘cured’ through various therapeutic means. But as James Hillman points out: 

The “bad” place I am “in” may refer not only to a depressed mood or an anxious state of mind; it may refer to a sealed-up office tower where I work, a set-apart suburban subdivision where I sleep, or the  jammed freeway on which I commute between the two.’

Of course, it may also refer to children and young people’s experience of being cooped up indoors – not just in classrooms but also in homes watching screens, rather than being out of doors playing as their parents or grandparents’ generations would have done.

Thankfully, this is beginning to change. For the last few days I’ve been at a terrific event organized by Learning and Teaching Scotland on Outdoor Learning. This sector is now being invigorated by a number of new initiatives such as ‘forest schools’ and nature kindergartens. Politicians in Scotland are also very keen to support and encourage this type of education though whether in the present climate they will be able to provide much new cash is unlikely.

I’ve little doubt that residential experiences in a rural area, particularly for secondary school pupils can be hugely rewarding in a number of different ways.  But we must also be aware that the ecopsychology literature shows that even small exposures to the natural environment can be beneficial. For example, studies in hospitals have shown that patients with a natural  view healed quicker, and were discharged earlier, than those who looked onto a man made feature such as a brick wall. The mental health organisation Mind undertook research which showed that walking in a green environment improved mental well-being and self-esteem. This wasn't simply about physical activity as walking in a shopping  centre, for example, did not have the same benefits.  Even viewing pictures of natural scenes can be beneficial to people’s well-being. A few weeks ago I spoke to a head teacher in England who said that his school no longer has problems with exclusions as the last remaining ‘difficult’ pupils were now so involved digging and tending goats in the school’s new garden, that their behaviour had completely changed.

At the Centre  we’ve created a lot of new resources on these type of themes in the Flourishing Lives section of the site. One of my hopes is that as well-being becomes a bigger issue in schools that much of this new found interest will lead to more and more opportunities to get outdoors into the natural world. And in Scotland we are simply spoiled for choice ... .

Comment By Comment
Malcolm T
Joined: 29/04/2009

Comment Posted: 30/04/2009 12:01
I couldn't agree more, we must get children and adults out and about, particularly into green spaces or maybe coastal spaces, stimulating spaces, spaces different from one's norm.
You stated in the blog:
Ive little doubt that residential experiences in a rural area, particularly for secondary school pupils can be hugely rewarding in a number of different ways.
I feel these experiences are equally valuable to primary children. We regularly talk about early intervention, so should we not expose the younger children to these experiences before they get completely set in their DS2 ways or whatever the game machines are called? In this time of change with the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, the residential visit has been given a great opportunity to be integrated into the curriculum rather than being seen as a wee extra bolt on.
I feel the residential visit to an outdoor centre has equal relevance to both secondary and the top end of primary. The emphasis though of the course with the different age groups would be different.
The focus of the programme for the primary age group should be children and their personal and social development through outdoor activities. Courses of a multi activity format allowing children to experience many outdoor activities would be ideal, this range of activities will then enable children to make considered choices later on, whether to follow these activities or not. Whereas courses for secondary groups should be of a more specialist nature than the multi activity courses offered to primary groups. Being more physically and emotionally mature, students are able to take on the challenge and excitement integral to these adventurous and active programmes. With programmes such as these a progression can be shown, further enabling students to make choices for a healthy and possibly more environmentally caring lifestyle.
I am not advocating that the residential experience is the only way forward, far from it, just that the benefits should not be discounted for primary children.
I do work in residential outdoor education.
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