Sheffielders often talk about how their Outdoor City is like a Natural Health Service with trees everywhere, deer and kingfishers in our city centre, and suburbs surrounded by parks, woods and wild moorland.
But in mental health awareness week, scientists researching the mental health benefits of natural surroundings have found that feeling part of the natural world, not just being a spectator, is what really helps us feel better about ourselves.
“It’s about finding your own way to connect to nature,” said Jenny King from Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust.
“It might be making a notebook of the things you see from your window or in your local park, it might be sitting down in the woods and spending a few minutes listening to the birdsong, it might be just going out in the green spaces of Sheffield with friends or family and talking about what you find there.”
Jenny looks after the ‘Wild at Heart’ project which has been running in Sheffield and Rotherham since 2014. Now funded by Cadent Foundation and the National Lottery Community fund, Wild at Heart runs social groups using outdoor activities to help people improve their health and wellbeing, make new friends and learn new skills while exploring parks and green spaces.
“Looking at a squirrel, for example, or the colour of leaves together is an ice breaker that gets people talking,” said Jenny. “People may have many difficulties in their lives, but taking time to appreciate the good stuff in your local park or woodland, or even just outside your window, helps your brain to think more positively.”
One participant, Jayne, said: “Nature really helps me. I feel uplifted after taking part, and different to before.”
Research by Public Health England shows that natural landscapes in towns and cities can reduce stress and make people feel happier, and that people who live near natural environments have better mental health.
Regular activities in a green space make it easier for people to interact with other people, and can reduce isolation and antisocial behaviour in surrounding communities.
“This last year has shown that people are often desperate to connect with nature, and with other people,” said Jenny. “But because of ill health or various complex inequalities not everyone can easily access green spaces. So we try and support people to use their local park, helping them feel safer. We want people to feel included and welcome.”
So the Wild at Heart team have kept in touch by calling participants on the phone, and by creating activity packs so people can explore the nature near their homes in their own time. This work is again funded by the Cadent Foundation, which is also supporting studies by the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group to find out how the natural world can affect people’s sense of wellbeing.
“We’re animals that need to be outside, we’re not really designed to sit in a house looking at four walls all the time,” said Jenny.
“So here are a few ideas for adults and children to connect with nature, now the weather is (theoretically) improving.”
Sticky Pallets: stick some double sided tape on a piece of stiff card, then take it with you on a walk. Collect fallen leaves and flowers, feathers, petals, grasses, shells etc. and then put your sticky pallet on display at home, maybe making new sticky pallets from the same walk as the seasons change.
Grow Pea Tops: buy a small pack of dried marrowfat peas, and plant a few in some damp kitchen paper, cotton wool or compost in an old egg box or mushroom tray on a windowsill, and water gently every few days until after a couple of weeks they should be about 10 cm high. Cut them off and eat them in a salad or sandwich and start your next crop.
Tree Boggarts : find a fist sized lump of clay and work it with your hands until it’s fairly soft. Mould it into the shape of an ugly face, then stick it on a tree to guard over it in future. Add feathers, grass, leaves, pebbles for hair, beards, noses etc. until it looks suitably scary.
For more ideas and info see: https://www.wildsheffield.com/wild-at-heart