My Relationship with Nature

A guest blog post I wrote for Wild Happy Well – who writes about why nature makes us feel good. Check it out; https://wildhappywell.com/blog/

As a garden designer, nature is a central part of my life. I spend at least a couple of days a week out in lovely Derbyshire gardens with my hands in the soil; gardening and growing things. But for me nature offers so much more than that. I’m continually blown away by the restorative effect the outdoors has on my wellbeing and, living on the edge of the magnificent Peak District, I spend a good amount of my free time exploring the landscape. I walk, meander, potter, sit and breathe it in. 

Occasionally I make a special plan to head for a particular spot, to see the sunrise or sunset, but more often I follow my nose and find a stream or an interesting tree to enjoy. I ponder on how we share the air we breathe, the water, and how we’re all essentially made of the same building blocks – we are nature.  I have favourite places which I visit regularly, where I’m able to observe the changing seasons and build a real connection to a place.

The landscape here is so varied, the horizon lines change, as you travel, one hill recedes and morphs into another. Early mornings offer stunning misty valleys and cloud inversions. I also notice the details; cobwebs, new buds forming, the colours of the leaves against the blue sky, I enjoy the air on my skin, the sound of a stream. I slow down, quieten my thinking mind and my senses awaken.

I enjoy this both with and without my children – and they inspire me too. They were never told not to get muddy, or that they shouldn’t climb trees for fear of hurting themselves. Watching them in the woods is a joy and sometimes, I copy them in an effort to challenge myself and to ‘re wild.’

Often, nature induces a sense of calm, a good couple of hours at the allotment, or a stomp across the Derbyshire hills will leave me feeling a heavy satisfaction of having unplugged – or recharged – depending on which way you chose to see it.

The walking helps me think – creative ideas tend to come when I’m relaxed, bored or applied to something else – and least when I am striving for them. Which means I can justify a certain amount of wandering outdoors as helpful to my work – not just my wellbeing.

I, (as most gardeners do) have a bad back, which can be problematic with some of the more physical aspects of my work – interestingly a good cross country walk can really help – the irregularity of the stride seems to make a difference in resetting my alignment where walking on paved surfaces doesn’t. In the winter I also enjoy a little barefoot walking – when bad weather comes and I get cabin fever and I realise how many days it is since I got my ‘fix’. 

Sometimes, nature makes me feel seen & heard, there are areas of woodland where I feel greeted back by the community of trees and connected to something bigger – to sense that my own personal dramas aren’t such a big deal. Eco psychologists, and some ancient cultures practice medicine walks – a  rite of passage where individuals can deeply connect with nature to reach revelations or wisdom.

As is considered typical, nature lovers become quite protective of nature and engage in what experts call ‘pro environmental behaviours’. I feel fiercely protective of my local wild spaces especially, and of the soil – I struggle to see fields sprayed with weedkiller, and diggers and machines carving up soil structure. 

Getting outdoors is good for you certainly, but if you can slow down, tune in and be mindful the benefits are supercharged.

Why Wild Gardens for Children?

In the good old days, children played outdoors for hours, only coming home when they were hungry – isn’t that the story? Well it’s not quite how I remember it but apparently, the majority of children today spend less than 60 mins outside a day, which is less than prison inmates.

Richard Louvv in his book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ coined the term ‘Nature deficit disorder’ not as a medical condition but a social one. He is part of a growing movement of awareness and change around improving the relationship that people have with nature. Statistics like those mentioned are pretty depressing with children spending more time indoors at screens, and less time outside, especially for unstructured time.

His later book ‘Vitamin N’, Louvv talks about Nature as an essential nutrient for a healthy human. Its makes sense, our bodies evolved to spend our waking ours outside; working, hunting etc. We have understood that our bodies and minds need exercise but what about the other things we gain from being outdoors rather than in? Reporting from a study on Nature Connection, head of psychology at the University of Derby, Dr Miles Richardson,  explains, “There is a need to normalise everyday nature as part of a healthy lifestyle,” in this article on BBC Earth.

Interestingly, Dr Richardson recently published a paper showing that nature based education is not necessarily what we need to feel connection to nature. Learning bird names therefore does not reap the same benefits as enjoying the birdsong.

Forest schools is one successful part of the movement, a Scandinavian concept being used within traditional education settings.

Forest school offers learners opportunities to develop self esteem through hands on learning in a woodland setting. The emphasis is on self awareness, practical learning, team working & independence. Benefits include; learning about risk taking – through opportunities to safely test out a child’s own abilities, improved emotional intelligence, and building comfort and familiarity in natural spaces.

Camo net den building
Kids love a sense of privacy, a camo net provides a quick cover on a woodland adventure.

Wherever possible I design wild play spaces into my gardens, at first I was aesthetically driven, keen to use natural materials and avoid the bright plastic toys, but soon I saw the benefits of unstructured play, of forest schools type activities and wild ‘down time’ with my own children. Now I maximise opportunities within family gardens for this.

When I take my two children to our allotment for example; they don’t do much weeding or seed sowing, when space allows they might build a den, or create a game for themselves, mostly they just dig holes, build fairy gardens or graze on the fruit. In the woods they will play with sticks for hours, clearing leaves out of the streams.

Living Willow
Living willow can provide quick, robust results in creating a wild play space for children.

Wild Child Garden Ideas;

  • The wildlife trusts run ’30 Days Wild’ each July for the month with great ideas of how to get back to nature.
  • Our year outdoors – offers tips for getting more outdoor time as a family, including advice such as ‘don’t let weather stop you’
  • The National Trust has some brilliant ideas in their outdoor play spaces, stepping stone logs etc. Check out my pin board for some ideas.
  • Within a garden I usually identify or recommend a flexible space for kids to play which can be adapted as they grow and change.
  • Utilise sturdy shrubs or trees, where the site has no existing trees – living willow can create a quick, robust result
  • Add a tree swing or some log stools for a seating area, where space allows maybe a circle for chatting and eating, creating opportunities for sharing and listening
  • The youngest children like a mud pit or sand pit
  • Open ended play objects create opportunities for imaginative play and learning. Rather than a swing ball for example, a pile of branches, can be a den or a climbing structure or markers on the ground for limitless games.
  • Use natural materials – logs, rocks, tools, space for a fire – where appropriate, a tarpualin and rope.

This is not a stick
image; WilderChild.com

Kids thrive in natural environments, they are designed to learn and grow in nature. As are adults, of course. Ask yourself what are your best childhood memories?