The world is currently at a crossroads. Many of us are growing tired of the “new normal” that has required us to have varying levels of shelter in place, though we understand the need. As things progress, we are coming out of our cocoons, testing the waters of leaving our homes while still taking the precautions that make sense based on the available data. Masks and hand sanitizer are the new black. We are indeed fashionable.
So many clinical professionals have moved to telehealth platforms in order to provide much needed care. Some have been doing so for years, while others, like me, avoided it to no end until the pandemic hit our shores. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I as a practitioner and my clients adapted and thrived using this technology. I will admit to still doing that “weird wave” at the end of most sessions but even that has brought cheer.
Some have reopened their physical offices while taking all available precautions. Many have felt the data did not support this (and this will not be a debate on that issue I assure you). I too would like to reopen, especially since we had been finishing a 1600 square foot addition to our offices as COVID – 19 hit. The offices have sat empty, longing for service for many months now.
There is however a third option (besides in office and telehealth) that some have started to try. Others, including some colleagues I work with, have been doing it for years but are expanding greatly due to the pandemic. This third option is utilizing nature’s offices.
Nature’s offices are outdoor offices where clients can meet with their clinical professional outdoors, thus mitigating as much risk as possible. These offices when used correctly, offer privacy, comfort, safety, and so much more.
A “typical” nature’s office can be set up and used in the following ways during the pandemic:
- Client and clinician meet in the car park wearing masks.
- Client and clinician do their best to follow physical distanced requirements in place at the time, as recommended by experts in the field of pandemic response.
- If available, clinician gives the client a choice of offices. Ideally there are many offices in differing settings with different designs. If this is not possible, any nature office will work.
- Seating is spaced as far apart as practical, exceeding minimum suggested requirements, without being seated directly across from one another.
- Once seated, client and professional can remove mask if desired but will put them back on at the end of the session as the client returns to the car park.
- Each nature’s office offers privacy though the clinical professional discusses the possibility that someone could presumably walk into the area in the context of confidentiality. Should that occur, the session pauses until the area is clear.
While not every office has outdoor space, particularly in big cities, the offices that do may find that the transition is easy enough. However, it is important to have a back-up plan such as telehealth, should weather pose an issue. Some nature offices include an option of a roofed structure such as a gazebo that allows air to pass freely while providing shelter from rain or excessive sun. Some have a heating source for cooler temperatures though few will be utilized when full winter cold sets in.
In this setting, clinician and client need not worry about recycled air as you are breathing the air found in nature. The furniture though often used and cleaned regularly, is further “cleaned” by being outdoors, as rain and sunlight (via UV rays) provide natural disinfectant though it is wise to follow the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization recommendations for cleaning, mask wearing, etc.
When the pandemic passes, these offices can still serve programs regularly. You need not look at this as a temporary investment; on the contrary, these may well become some of your favorite spaces.
Case Study: Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm, Wolcott Connecticut USA
Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm’s slogan is “Nurture in Nature” and has utilized fields, woodlands, gardens and other areas of its property for therapeutic services for years. When the pandemic hit, it closed down its physical offices and switched to telehealth pending clear data and understanding of how the pandemic spread. As information became clearer after months of global data collection, it appeared that an important stage between telehealth and in office care would be to utilize existing nature’s offices and build additional ones. Face masks, hand sanitizer and other safety measures would continue while the main building would remain closed to all but essential staff (due to animals that needed care as the farm program could not be run totally from home).
Taking consideration of folks that have varying levels of mobility and health concerns, a half dozen areas were set up for outdoor sessions. This was made more difficult by a shortage of benches and outdoor seating in the state. Items were purchased, and existing stock was moved as needed, to ensure that sessions would be able to be offered for those that telehealth was less than ideal for. All clients were pre-screened prior to being offered the opportunity to use this service option. Some were declined due to a lack of safety protocols or other high risk behaviors.
As the pandemic has continued, nature’s office expansion has continued. Several areas will have or already have had a heat source installed to help in cooler weather. Options will be explored as winter sets in to determine if in-building sessions are practical and safe or if a move to telehealth only will be needed for the coldest months.
Nature’s offices currently include areas of sun, shade, flowering plants, stone benches and other options. Some offices are within feet of the car park while others require a short walk. All will continue to be used post pandemic so the costs associated with building, furnishing and maintaining them is considered an investment in improving the infrastructure of the program and not as a drain on funds.
For more information and photo examples of nature’s offices, please visit this link. https://www.docwarren.org/nature-offices
Be safe, do good
“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, clinical & executive director of Community Counseling of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). He is internationally certified as a Counsellor and Counsellor Supervisor in the USA and Canada (C.C.C., C.C.C.-S, NCC, ACS). He can be contacted at [email protected] His program has also been featured on NBC *The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA