Exploring the connection between nature play and Mental health


Mucky Boots were delighted to be invited to present our work as part of the open space seminar hosted by Eccowell at the Cork County Hall last Thursday. Myself and 7 other speakers from different organisations were invited to present a 4 minute piece that focused on the connection between our work and mental health. Obviously there is a lot more that can be said on the subject than 4 minutes but it was a great opportunity to be succinct about the topic and a welcomed opportunity to bring the work we do into a larger forum.

In my previous role as Youth Arts Coordinator for Young Urban Arts in Dublin, public speaking and networking was a big part of my job. Since re-training and working in the field of nature connection my work has been very hands on and practical with little opportunity to speak to other doers and change makers working in the field of education, health and well being.

Nature does not judge or discriminate. It nourishes and supports people in all sorts of ways helping them to feel a sense belonging and well being.  You can read my 4 minute presentation on nature play and mental health below.


“ I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more”- John Burroughs

Mucky Boots is a forest schooling and nature connection project set up in 2014. We run a variety of programmes for children between 3-12 years of age, regular Family Days, Summer and Easter Camps.We are delighted to be hosting our second Family Camp this July in the Hollies. We are currently looking into ways of offering further training and events for adults and making ongoing efforts to see forest school exist alongside mainstream education making it more accessible to all.

Forest school programmes are child centred and are deliberately designed to promote the holistic development of the child. It offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self esteem through hands on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment.

We offer a learner centred approach, where participants can learn through self directed play and exploration. Participants are given the opportunity to develop their curiosity, confidence, self-esteem, creativity, empathy, communication skills, knowledge of the natural environment and ability to assess risk.

A typical session may include games, songs, storytelling, nature crafts, shelter building, scavenger hunts, tool use, rope work, fire lighting and cooking and plenty of time to explore and play in nature.

With our fast paced and screen time culture it is becoming common knowledge that children and adults alike need to spend more time in nature. Engaging with nature and experiencing the outdoors first hand, boosts cognitive development and promotes healthier, happier minds.

In Richard Louv’s book ‘The last child in the woods’ he notes that ‘unlike television, nature does not steal time, it amplifies it. Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualisation and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world into the woods, wash it in the creek and turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion’

An emerging body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health. For example new studies show that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of ADHD, and that it can improve children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression.

In Nature a child finds freedom, fantasy and privacy, a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace. Nature offers nurturing solitude and is often overlooked as a healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life.

The transition from childhood to adulthood present unique challenges to a significant number of children. For those who lack resilience to make a smooth transition to adulthood, some develop mental health problems that could have lasting effects on their adult lives. Evidence around child development shows that young people gain adaptive skills through experience rather than through instruction. Forest school participants build their resilience through constant contact with nature, being involved in decision making , being informed, learning new skills, taking risks and working with others to achieve a task.

None can argue the link between physical exercise and mental well being. Natural play allows children the well needed space and freedom to explore their bodies ability to move and develop more confidence in themselves and their abilities.

Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses and therefore for learning and creativity.

‘Every child is a competent learner’ but children have preferred learning styles. Forest school activities provide opportunities for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning within each activity. Forest school activities are flexible, enabling all children to achieve with a degree of challenge, building confidence and self-esteem and encouraging the perseverance that will help to build resilience.

Forest Schools have well established structures to manage risks in the outdoors. This risk management framework empowers children to engage in a wide variety of risky activities with higher level of independence and greater curiosity, rather than avoiding them altogether.

Through Forest school games and activities the children cultivate empathy for the living environment. They become aware of the web of life, the interconnection of all things and their place to belong within that.

In our forest school for pre schoolers we have a grandma ash and a granddad oak tree. The children have watched the tree change through the seasons and found a bounty of support and fun to be had with each. They have learned to recognise the blue tit, robin and wren when they come for food, find new rabbit burrows and track with great excitement a fresh foxes paw print they find in the mud. I have learned the importance of naming things. We name what we care about and what we care about we want to protect. I will leave you with a quote from Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle that is quite close to my heart

              “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”






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