We believe that it becomes possible for children and young people to overcome life’s barriers and achieve positive change, when they are offered emotional, social and learning support in a nurturing setting-and those are the key elements our programmes are based on.
Over the past two decades (and now into our third!) Wild Things has had the privilege of observing the benefits that time in the natural world can have, on thousands of children and young people, including children and young people from Nottingham city, from the Nottinghamshire Coalfields and from across Derbyshire – from schools, Refugee Forums, Pupil Referral Units, Virtual School and youth support groups – children in care, young carers, children facing exclusion from school, children with English as an additional language and children who are newly arrived in the country.
The combination of our observations, and the feedback we have received, has shown us that taking part in high impacting experiences in the natural world can have a significant and long lasting positive effect on the mental health, social and life skills, and educational attainment of children and young people, regardless of their background.
When a child or young person has had an experience that offers emotional, social and learning support in a memorable and exciting way, this experience can act as a springboard that changes the way they see themselves, the way they interact with others, and how they are perceived by their peer group and teachers – all leading to an increased ability to thrive.
All our programmes are based in the woods as we believe that the natural world offers the perfect supportive yet challenging, non-judgemental, diverse and neutral space, for children and young people to safely take the appropriate emotional, social and physical risks necessary to develop, build resilience and grow.
Wild Things focuses on creating a safe space where children and young people can feel excited, intrigued and confident – in exploring the natural world and their relationship with it, their feelings about themselves, and their relationship with the children and adults around them.
Time in the woods creates both physical and mental space, offering peace and respite from stresses and strains they may be facing in everyday life, and also offers the chance for children to just be children (immersed in adventure and explorations, exhilarated, muddy and feeling imaginatively and physically set free) – temporarily shedding the adult responsibilities and burdens that many of them have to shoulder.
This experience can give children and young people a chance to let off steam and also to let go of the limiting behaviours and patterns that they may use to protect themselves, i.e. refusal to participate or speak, social withdrawal, bullying, aggressive and defensive behaviours.
The alternative environment of the woods, the practical nature of the activities we offer, and small group work, also often leads to children and young people using their time at Wild Things to share and process their struggles, burdens and worries, both with each other and with the adults in the woods. Communication about difficult feelings often becomes so much easier when working alongside or exploring with someone, where conversations can evolve and take time, and the usual disturbances and noises of every day life are absent.
Wild Things aims to ensure that we provide a high ratio of Wild Things workers to young people during all our programmes, to try and ensure that individual children and young people get the extra attention and emotional support that that they need.
The Wild Things staff team has a diverse array of experience and skill of having worked with children and young people with emotional difficulties or facing multiple barriers to well being. Wild Things workers aim to help create a safe and positive space for young people in the woods that can help support them with their struggles.
Within programmes such as our Forest School and Residential experiences, we enable the children and young people to take responsibility and ownership over the programme, designing and planning their own sessions throughout. This allows each child and young person to have a level of control over their learning experience that they cannot experience within other settings. We hear from groups time and again about the positive impact this element of choice and autonomy has on children and young people, particularly those who usually have very limited choices and control in their lives.
All the challenges Wild Things offers to the children and young people are “challenge by choice”, and are designed to nurture self-esteem – helping to build positive mental health and resilience. Staff are amazed at the positive changes and transformations they see in the children and young people, particularly in their confidence, communication and participation. A programme like Forest School (where a child or young person comes out for several weeks in a row) becomes something that they can look forward to all week, having a positive impact on how they feel, behave and learn.
At Wild Things the groups face entirely new challenges and experiences for the first time, creating a feeling of “we are all in this together” and requiring them to work together, generating trust and co-operation and building new social skills and lasting friendships that can provide support back at school and home.
A large emphasis is put on supporting and empowering the children and young people to find their voice and to take the emotional risks necessary to communicate their feelings and opinions with others. Many of our programmes rely on group planning and communication, and feedback and circle times feature as a regular part of the experience.
The emphasis on non-hierarchical group work, communication and shared leadership skills can help to break down and challenge some of the negative social patterns that affect children and young people. The complexity and non-judgemental nature of the natural world creates in our view the ideal nurturing environment for understanding the importance of diversity, difference and inter-dependence.
One specific area of our work that has particularly interested Wild Things is that spending time in the woods also offers the chance for children and young people who are newly arrived in the country to access experiences which may help them to forge a sense of connection and belonging to their new “home”. Many of these children and young people find aspects of their experience at Wild Things, reminds them of things from their home country and what was often a more rural based life, i.e. open fires, using tools, and spending more time being physical outside.
For many of these young people, having to adapt to their new home in a highly urbanised, industrial and technological culture, creates a sense of loss and alienation that needs to be recognised. These young people often excel at the practical challenges at Wild Things and their achievements offer the opportunity to talk about and process their past experiences, to shine at something in front of their peer group, and can help break down barriers with others.
Wild Things recognises that many children and young people face extra barriers to engaging with learning and achieving academically (low confidence, language barriers, special educational needs, life circumstances such as being in social care etc.), and therefore become at risk of disengagement or exclusion from education and of failing to thrive and reach their potential.
The chance to take part in practical, alternative learning programmes, which are designed to be hands-on and interactive, can be more accessible to those with different learning styles or facing multiple barriers, giving children and young people who normally struggle to achieve, the chance to succeed and get excited about learning, therefore helping to break negative cycles of low aspirations and achievements. Programmes like Wild Things Forest School, which occur weekly for a minimum of 6 weeks, have been shown to improve children and young people’s confidence, behaviour and attendance which also helps prevent educational exclusion.
Many teachers have also commented that our adventure based, hands-on, Earth Education style programmes, give children who normally struggle in a classroom setting, a chance to become immersed and participate in a way that they would not expect to see back at school.
A high impacting experience with Wild Things can sow the seeds for a positive and active life long relationship between a child or young person and the natural environment.
We believe that children and young people can only take on the responsibility of caring for things that they know and have an emotional connection with, and that is why it is of immense importance to create those links between them and the natural world. From over 20 years of experience, we have learnt that children and young people whose everyday life is completely severed from nature and the countryside, can still make an instant connection with the natural environment from a powerful first experience in a woodland – as one girl commented at the end of a Forest School programme with us – “I feel like I’ve come home.”
How much more likely are children and young people to take care of somewhere that actually feels like home to them rather than a place that they have no emotional connection to! And the benefits of that connection being built and nurtured will possibly effect all of our futures.