Long before the inception of Mental Health Awareness Week, Aristotle reminded us that nature is so central to our psychological and emotional health. Indeed, it is almost impossible to realise good mental health without a greater connection to the natural world. For most of human history, we lived as part of nature. Only in the last five generations have so many of our race lived and worked in a context that is largely separated from nature. And interestingly, retrospective analysis of inpatient outcomes over the past 50 years has found that patients who were treated in hospitals with a view of nature recovered faster – which encouraged science to start unpacking its extraordinary health benefits. 

As a school community, supporting our students’ mental health is equally as important as supporting their physical health. Last week, we focused on the evidence demonstrating the powerful benefits of nature on our mental health. We considered nature’s unique ability to not only bring consolation in times of stress, but also increase our creativity, empathy and a sense of wonder. It is not just being in nature, but rather how we open ourselves up and interact with nature, that counts. The past year’s experience has taught us that even small contacts with nature can reduce feelings of social isolation and be effective in protecting our mental health, and preventing distress. Nature is, quite simply, our great untapped resource for a mentally healthy future.

Despite this, many of us are not accessing or benefitting from nature. Teenagers in the UK in particular appear to be less connected with the natural world. Within our school assemblies and PSHEC lessons, we have challenged the disparities in who is and is not able to enjoy nature. Nature is not a luxury. It is as basic a resource as having access to clean water or a safe roof over our heads. 

As a school, we aim to inspire our students to connect with the great outdoors in new ways, noticing the impact that this connection can have on our wellbeing. We are very proud to be one of the largest centres of outdoor learning in the region, with remarkable uptake in Duke of Edinburgh programmes and the wonderful wider work of our dedicated Director of Outdoor Education. Recently, through the wonder of our first extended day trips in over a year, students across our Junior School experienced nature’s role in bringing solace and joy to our lives. In the past week alone, we have witnessed the simple acts of nurturing our butterfly cocoons in Nursery, reinforcing a wonderful sense of awe. Our Lower Is and Upper Is (Years 3 and 4) learnt how the Romans gained self-sufficiency by building willow walls, spinning sheep’s fleece, foraging for herbs, grinding grain and churning cream in local woodland. Lower III (Year 6) students made their own fires to cook bread, working collaboratively to build shelters and catapults, with just natural resources and their shared imagination to lean upon. 

Each of these outdoor learning experiences is once more beginning to enrich and develop our students in ways only possible beyond the four walls of our classrooms. Such connection with nature and challenge builds resilience, an open mind and a caring attitude to our surroundings and each other, whilst making connections in our learning, understanding the concepts of continuity and change, as well as developing positive relationships in new environments. We have been consciously taking a moment to notice and celebrate nature in our daily lives too, sharing this through our Spring Photography Competition – offering an opportunity to take comfort from the wildlife which surrounds us.   

Discovering and enjoying the wonder around us can lift our perspective beyond our concerns to the positive possibilities that exist. Rather than worrying about aspects of our life that may be difficult to control, we encourage our students to choose to pursue wonder instead. Doing something that sparks awe in our soul can range from going outside to stargaze or watch a sunrise, to taking a ‘wonder walk’ to steer worry away. The manner with which our emotions and mood is affected from such actions has been central to our discussions too.

Above all, this week has inspired us to intentionally search for ways to connect with nature – to look beyond our circumstances to a greater sense of hope – and as we do, gain a sense of peace that eclipses our worries and boosts our mental health.

Nisha Kaura, Head of The Abbey Junior School