Mental Health, Wellbeing, Nature: Children need to go Outdoors

Mental Meandering and the Outdoors

By Kate Macairt (Director CLR)

Children of all ages need to go outdoors to support their mental health and wellbeing. Children need the enriched sensory inputs which outdoors can provide. This does not have to be a beautiful wild landscape or forest, there are wild spaces in every city worth discovering.

In her TED talk (30/9/16) Emma Marris stresses there is no division between humans and Nature. We are part of nature, we are part of the living system of this planet. She encourages us to take a short walk through the urban jungle and find how, no matter how much concrete we pour, time will open cracks and shoot new life. For a disenfranchised young person, the bravery of the little weed forcing its way through such obstacle provides a metaphor which system 1 thinking notices. (See my previous Blog on System 1 and 2).

Mental Health, Wellbeing, NatureConquering Nature has been a significant driving force in the evolution of humans.  The modern human brain still contains elements of our ancestor Neanderthal brain. What was absolute survival behaviour for early humans is still the brain’s default mode and when we are stressed by events in our life we will still adopt the same response as our ancestors: fight freeze flight.

The development of the human for rational logical thinking has set us apart, humans have always explored and questioned their place within the natural scheme of things and in more recent times struggled for domination over other animals, plants, rivers, rocks oceans. The success of the domination has been over whelming and in Earth time super- fast. As a species we have fast tracked the development of our cognitive thinking skills. We are amazing and can create anything we imagine, almost. But it is very clear that now we pay the price for thinking we are above or exempt from the natural system.  It is our young humans who will face the clean up after hundreds of years of irresponsible partying by so called grown- ups.

Perhaps it would be easier now to carry on trashing and abusing the hand which feeds us. Perhaps we do need more gadgets and systems which will help distance us from our nature. Implant chips so we can be read like a robot. Surrender our ability to find our way, turn on our lights, remember appointments and so on.  We should be treading with more caution. History clearly shows that it is not possible to change natural phenomena without there being a knock-on effect and these knock-on effects often create a less safe world for humans.

I am a child of the 1960’s and have grown up with awareness that this is no new argument but what has changed significantly I feel is the effect of the modern human world on children.  In 1989 Morris Berneman wrote ‘Coming to Our Senses’. An acknowledgement of how the evolutionary process has divorced us from our embodied experience of the world. He warns of the de-humanising effect of believing we are above or outside the natural world and the existential void that disembodiment creates.

Remember the two infants, our indoor and outdoor babies? (Again, see my previous Blog).  Let’s assume baby 1 continues to have predominantly indoor experiences, what sensory memories is she forming? Modern urban city life encourages us to stay indoors. From birth until she is three years old Infant 1 has been kept safe inside the aircon apartment, she gets to play with playdough while in her high chair and she likes bubbles in her bath. She has an Ipad on which she watches age appropriate cartoons, she loves Peppa Pig (consider how many products aimed at young children utilise animals with human characteristics, flowers and trees that can talk, and rural locations). There is a beautiful jungle mural on the nursery wall. Baby 1 has been kept safe from germs and is carried from building to car to building in safety seats. All the time her little brain is growing. A baby’s brain grows 64% in the first year of life.  Baby 1 is making the foundation ‘compost’ which will unconsciously impact on her future behaviour as she matures and faces new experiences

Mental Health, wellbeing, nature Baby 2 has also been inputting sensory data. Her arms have been stretching trying to reach the grass as her arm flops over she rolls and now she is lying on her tummy. She grabs at the green spikes which are waggling in front of her she pulls at the strands a chubby fistful of grass… and now to taste! As Baby 2 gets bigger she enjoys mixing mud pies, she will lift the stone and look for the woodlice that live there and she has found her own special place under a bush where some of her toys live. Both babies are safe and have working models of secure attachment. Both babies are having their basic needs met and both will grow up and no doubt do ok at school.  (If you wish to train to work in the outdoors, see our Forest School Training courses).

What Baby 1 lacks is the opportunity to explore her world in its true entirety.  The outdoors and all that it offers is an important part of our story, our personal story and our ancestral narrative. If we are to feel confident in our capacity to be resilient then we need to develop a positive relationship with our world.

A little boy of 3 years is on the beach, I am observing him and his mother from a distance. It is a beautiful sunny day he is following his mum, they are walking up from the sea shore across rocks. He scrambles over the boulders like a bear cub, all fours finding his balance, his little bare feet scrunch as he walks, a little gingerly at first, over the pebbles but in no time he is striding ahead. He is completely Master of his body moves and his quiet humming communicates his sense of satisfaction with life.  Some time passes, the same little boy is again returning from the sea following his mother. This time he slips and falls and for a moment he disappears behind a boulder,  then there is a wail!  Mum is quick to respond, has scooped him up and is hugging him. She picks him up, dusts him off and he is ready to start all over again.  Mum walks on and the boy continues his scrambling and balancing.

See our website for courses based around mental health, wellbeing, natureSo much sensory information has automatically been experienced and the boys developing Superintendent will have noted ‘I fell over, it hurt, but not for long’. He has felt confirmation that the world provides fun and satisfaction and he is completely justified in receiving it. When it goes wrong it hurts but mum’s hug has reassured him to continue. I know, not rocket science is it? But what you may not have considered before is how important it is for that activity to have been outdoors. The power of the event would not have been the same had the boy been in the JungleTumble play world climbing foam blocks and plastic balls.

The dislocation of mind and body may be an effect of Western culture’s preoccupation with individualism and materialism. Eastern cultures have traditionally maintained more awareness of the harmony of mind and body, this can clearly been seen in the difference between Western and Eastern medicine. As the global modern technological world continues to expand our understanding of what reality is in being tested. For several years I have visited and worked in South East Asian countries training child counsellors and psychotherapists to become Play Therapists. The same mental health issues are manifesting in the young of China, Indonesia, Singapore as in London, USA, France. It is our young who have to deal with the ‘knock-on’ effect of the new technology. The seductive allure of computer worlds have been masterfully attuned to our addictive natures.

I loose count of how many young people I have worked with and who supervisees are working with, for whom playing on-line games has replaced most other social events. It is very usual now for young people to spend more time online engaging with each other as an avatar than taking ‘the risk’ of actually going out and engaging with a more unpredictable reality. The problems with this retreat into an internal world of virtual reality is the limited sensory input, the lack of somatic experience to such an extent that the Self is negated and projected onto a computer generated character who becomes ‘Me’.  Circle of Life Rediscovery are running a new course in the Autumn – Mental Health, Resiliency Training in Nature. Please register your interest here.

A child who lacks resilience will be drawn to the computer game and virtual worlds like a moth to the flame. The bedroom becomes the sanctuary the outside world dangerous. I guess it doesn’t take too much imagination to see how that young person who lacks resilience and fears the outdoors world and what is in it, who is addicted to playing violent games in which success equates to body count, how the boundaries between realities may begin to merge until one day you can step out of the bedroom as your avatar and use a real gun or knife and kill real people.

The intense sense of loneliness and isolation from the physical world and others is at the root of most mental ill health.  It does not require amazing gardens or wild plains to find our connection. If you happen to be reading this and are in a busy street with traffic, or on a park bench look down at the ground. Envisage a 10cm square drawn onto the ground. Now look closer at what is inside your square, a magnifying glass is very useful. This is an enjoyable game to play with all ages and if you were to have a 10cm square piece of paper and colouring pens you could try and capture on paper what you see. For the young child this sort of focus activity is very beneficial for connecting System 1 and System 2. The important thing is to be allowed to draw what you want to draw: do your own looking, seeing, interpreting.

Another effective simple outdoor focus game is to prepare a collection of objects, for example petals, leaves, sticks, stones, sweet wrappers. Create one big pile of confusion with them all jumbled together. The game is to see how quickly the chaotic mess can be sorted into piles of same or similar. Again, there is no right or wrong way here. Sorting things how you perceive they should be sorted is satisfying and simple.  It is a child-led (or person-led) activity and is educational because of the intensity of the sensory inputs: the freedom within the activity to make choices ( or to negotiate if in teams) gentle connection between sensory System 1 and pattern seeking System 2.

Learning with NatureI recommend Marina Robb’s book ‘Learning with Nature’ for more ideas on outdoor games and activities.  Whether in a Park, fields, or a scrubby patch in the back yard I encourage you and your children to get out more. Smell, look, taste, listen, touch find out what is safe and what isn’t. Have fun, breathe more deeply stretch your arms in the air, feel your feet grounded on earth. It is never too late to add more enrichment to your sensory network; the ‘compost’ of your foundation brain.

“The whole of science and one is tempted to think the whole of the life of any thinking man, is trying to come to terms with the relationship between yourself and the natural world. Why are you here and how do you fit in and what’s it all about?”
Sir David Attenborough


Landplay Therapy – Two Day Training Course with Kate Macairt.

Landplay Therapy with Kate Macairt

 

Kate will be running her two day Landplay training in Essex on 25th & 26th May 2019. Please visit the Circle of Life Rediscovery website for further information and view full course information here.

 


Transforming education, health and family through nature.

Circle of Life Rediscovery

Circle of Life Rediscovery provides exciting and highly beneficial nature-centred learning and therapeutic experiences for young people, adults, and families in Sussex woodlands, along with innovative continuing professional development for the health, well being and teaching professionals who are supporting them.

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Recommended related reads

Berne Morris: 1989; Coming to our Senses
Brazier C: 2018; Ecotherapy in Practice
Jennings Sue: 2001; Embodiment-Projection-Roleplay
Kahneman D ;2011; Thinking Fast and Slow
Knight S: 2013; Forest School and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years
Louv Richard : Last child in the Woods
Oaklander V : 2007; Windows to  our children,
Robb M et al : 2015; Learning with Nature
Young Jon: 2001: Exploring Natural Mystery: Kamana one

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Neuroscience: Mental Meandering and the Outdoors

Neuroscience: Mental meandering and the Outdoors –  System 1 and System 2

By Kate Macairt (Director CLR)

I am inside a box sitting by a window and the window is slightly open. Outside my window perched on a telephone line are 2 swallows; whatever it is they are communicating to one another, it is clearly something of great interest to them. Their chattering is a non-stop percussive melody, a complex composition with background hum of some power tool and a van pulling up below the window; I smell diesel. A gentle summer breeze licks my face and I watch how the verdant leaves tremble. My mind relaxes. My hand is holding a pen and might start doodling. I have escaped the box.

Neuroscience: Mental meandering and the Outdoors

If this description resonates then no doubt you too were accused of daydreaming in class. I taught teenagers Expressive Arts for many years and that sense of absorption in the moment; a relaxed pleasure in simple things was a gift I felt was an important aspect of Arts education.

 

I have continued to explore and discover more about the human trait of Creativity and the relationship between creative release and emotional literacy. Ten years ago, I became a Play Therapist.

Day dreaming is important, and it seems easy to daydream outdoors in a place with a tree or flowers, grass, water, sand, mud.

“When we need to plan for an uncertain future, mental meandering can be the perfect tool. Daydreaming has also been shown to be crucial in boosting creativity and problem solving, by allowing the brain to forge connections between pieces of information we don’t link up when we are too focused”, Caroline Williams New Scientist 20/5/17.

System 1 and 2

I am no Neuroscientist but I am a Creative Therapist and the dual process concept resonates as a workable idea which has helped me understand my own thinking and feeling. Recent neuroscience has explored the concept of dual processing (see Kahneman, Kauffman,) – System 1 and System 2.

This theory helps us to understand where feelings come from and why feelings can sometimes manifest for what seems no logical reason – a sudden mood change. I have found that drawing a diagram (psycho-ed) to show how feelings connect to sensory memories has helped young people understand why they are struggling with the world and their sense of place within it.

My version of the science is a simplified, focusing on those aspects of the research which I think are relevant to feeling. System 1: the larger automatic intuitive super- fast automatic brain absorbs all information from the sensory experience of an event. What we hear, see, taste, smell, touch is transmitted into our system 1 at micro second speed and it can feel rather chaotic, especially if we find ourselves in a noisy, busy, hot/cold, place and are hungry (fast brain processing). We may suffer sensory overload. Observe a young infant in a large supermarket and you will probably see the effect of sensory overload it is certainly a location where the toddler tantrum seems to occur frequently.

I think of the System 2 mind as a Superintendent. It is this small frontal cortex area of the brain which tries to filter and make sense of all the sensory input – it needs to make logical rational sense of the experiences so that we feel safe. Superintendent has been identified as lazy and prefers to deal with subjects it has experienced before. System 2 does not like change and so when the flood of sensory information is being fired the Superintendent naturally connects with information it has already stored as memory or tries to find the best fit. System 2 superintendent gives things names – it helps with storing and retrieval of information. So sensory feelings become emotions.

The first time I heard strange chattering out of my window I could not name it. I did not know a swallow. Now I quickly recognise that sound. I am not sure what the power tool is exactly, but I am reassured by stored information from past encounters with power tool noise. Superintendent focused thinking helps me feel in control and safe.

Neuroscience: Mental meandering and the OutdoorsNow consider the infant of 4 months. The baby needs to reduce fear and feel safe but everything is new and the memory bank is practically empty. The infant needs an adult to ensure safety and meet basic animal needs such as feeding, shelter. The infant needs to feel safe with Other and safe in her environment.

 

The baby’s system 1 needs to work hard in the first year of life. The ears, eyes, nose, mouth, skin need to learn what to do. It is through sensory experience that the infant begins to build a sense of them Selves in relation to Other and the environment.

System 2 needs experiences to be repeated, “again again” is Superintendent’s baby voice. Our brain needs repetition to help make sense of our Senses. The infant needs to build a firm foundation brain, a firm sensory network. Imagine two infants. Both are left alone for a few minutes. The first infant is in a bouncy chair in a living room. The room has electric lighting, a t.v is on and flashes colours in sporadic bursts into the room. The voices on the t.v are high and shrill full of excitement and energy, the baby wriggles in her chair and stretches out for the bright red toy in front of her. The air is heavy with the smell of cooking.

Neuroscience: Mental meandering and the OutdoorsBaby 2 has been put down on a rug on a piece of grass. The sky is blue and little clouds scud by. The sun is warm and the leaves on the tree twinkle, a butterfly lands on the rug next to the child. The air is full of sounds of the distant town, dogs barking, the wind in the bushes, and the sweet smell of freshly cut grass. The infant’s arms wave in the air.

Can you imagine both scenarios? I am not asking for judgement here as both scenarios are perfectly relevant. But it is the difference in sensory input that is worth focusing on. An infant brain requires enriched input, the infant brain knows what it needs. Carl Jung gave the world the concept of the Archetypes. In some ways the idea of these energy potentials held deep within the psyche seem to relate to the neuroscience concept of synapses waiting to be activated.

The Great Mother archetype is an internal drive which when activated will help the infant feel connected and safe. Secure attachment to the Mother or primary caregiver is boosted by secure attachment to The Great Mother: the earth. Only outdoors can the infant-child truly explore the world and what it is made of. Outdoor space provides room to stretch and try out body strength, to breathe air- although sadly it’s true that in our polluted cities aircon perhaps provides safer air. Man- made is good and we certainly wouldn’t want to get rid of our useful gadgets and inventions but again just consider the physical differences between a swimming pool and a lakeside or seaside beach? How does it feel to be beside the lake or sitting in the spectator stand?

If the infant is exposed to enriched natural sensory input she will unconsciously be creating a firm memory store which will become the foundation of all her future thinking. The early years are like compost making years which create a rich bed of experiences which feed and enrich all other experiences in the future. When we speak of Resilience I feel we are recognising this firm foundation in the child/adult’s mind. An ability to
bounce back is deep set. We need to keep feeding the compost throughout our life by ensuring diverse sensory experiences.

Landplay Training Course

Landplay Therapy with Kate Macairt

 

Kate will be running her two day Landplay training in Essex on 25th & 26th May 2019. Please visit the Circle of Life Rediscovery website for further information and view full course information here.

 


Transforming education, health and family through nature.

Circle of Life Rediscovery

Circle of Life Rediscovery provides exciting and highly beneficial nature-centred learning and therapeutic experiences for young people, adults, and families in Sussex woodlands, along with innovative continuing professional development for the health, well being and teaching professionals who are supporting them.

 

Recommended related reads
Berne Morris: 1989; Coming to our Senses
Brazier C: 2018; Ecotherapy in Practice
Jennings Sue: 2001; Embodiment-Projection-Roleplay
Kahneman D ;2011; Thinking Fast and Slow
Knight S: 2013; Forest School and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years
Louv Richard : Last child in the Woods
Oaklander V : 2007; Windows to our children,
Robb M et al : 2015; Learning with Nature
Young Jon: 2001: Exploring Natural Mystery: Kamana one

Author Kate Macairt
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