At one time just about everyone was regularly exposed to nature and all its wonders. Though we had large cities with nary a tree to be seen, prior to the advent of air conditioning it was very common for those with even a bit more than modest means to leave the city behind during the hottest months and surround themselves with water, woods and other cooler environs. For those not in the biggest cities, their daily life often included tree-lined streets, large fields and areas of woodlands that seemed to go on forever. Those in warmer climates may have lacked forests but had vast prairies or desert lands in which to roam.
As time marched on areas became more and more urban, work became more centred in factories and offices and less focused in fields, woodlands and waterways. Our connections to nature became fractured and with this fracture, the many benefits of nature were harder to enjoy. Much was lost.
Time is money or so we are lead to believe. Time in nature became seen by many as to have little to no value as, after all, you cannot profit financially by resting beneath a mighty oak. Farm lands in many parts of North America started to disappear; strip malls, housing subdivisions and other developments replaced them. Ball fields in many areas had their natural grass replaced by man-made turf. Folks could actually get a form of rug burn when tackled on this synthetic material. As we plugged into the latest technology we unplugged from the very thing that enabled life. Many of us are all the worse because of it.
Years ago it was not uncommon to prescribe time in nature, be it a forest, prairie, plain or desert. Many reports were made as to the renewed constitution or the cessation of negative symptoms once time in nature had occurred. In the states, prescriptions to visit mineral baths and hot springs became all the rage. Sometimes we knew exactly why these visits were helpful, other times the doctors “just knew” that it helped. Sadly, over time these prescriptions seem to be increasingly replaced with medication or other treatments. The developments continued until in some areas children and adults alike went months or even years without feeling sand, grass or dirt between their toes.
For years now I, and many others have worked hard to promote nature as part of self-care and everyday living. Some professional organizations have been lukewarm to this idea while others have provided such feedback as “so, you want to talk to clinical professionals about playing in the dirt for a while?” before being denied space to speak at conferences.
Thankfully, like nature, we professionals that believe in the power of nature have not given up. We now know after the result of much study that there are actually enzymes and other naturally occurring components in soil that when they come into contact with bare skin can actually help change moods. Think of it as a low dose all-natural mood stabilizer. Best of all, it’s free! Now, this exposure to nature may not allow all folks to reduce or eliminate medication but it may very well help them in ways that no pill can.
More and more we are hearing about the benefits of animal-assisted treatments. Few would argue that animals can do much to help ease loneliness, isolation while simultaneously increasing joy to those around. Even the terminally ill have reported an increase in quality of life when regularly exposed to animals and other items from nature.
Years ago before I founded Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm and before I threw away my cell phone for good, I received a phone call from the office telling me that I had a client that was in need of an unscheduled session. As I was doing chores at the farm that the charity was leasing, I could not easily get to the office. I offered the client a session in the field if they wanted. As it was only a few miles from my office they were there in minutes. We had privacy as there were acres of land and very few people. They set about describing the issue, paying little attention to the surrounding land. We ran the session much like a traditional one with the exception that we walked the field a bit, sat in the grass and had a far better view than we had in the office. They were very upset, speaking and breathing fast when suddenly they looked over and noticed wild strawberries. Mid-sentence they seemed to forget about their issues for a moment and asked: “are those strawberries?” I let them know that those small wild berries were all over the field and though only about the size of a Maine blueberry, they were safe to eat and tasty. A smile spread across their face, they ate a few, slowed their breathing and speech and found a new focus. In a short time things became calm again and by the end of the session, they were ready to tackle life on its terms. They asked if they could stay in the field a while longer and later returned with their family. Nature became a regular part of their routine after that.
Soon thereafter we began the process of purchasing that farm property and eventually renovating the approx. 7600 square foot main building into clinical space. In time we added different animals ranging from dogs and cats to ducks, chickens, turkeys and rabbits. In fact, we have a habitat that is a large fenced in area with overhead netting where the chickens, ducks and rabbits all live free-range (the fences and nets are to keep predators out. The animals go in and out of their coops as they like and interact freely). We eventually added outdoor sitting areas, meditation gardens, community gardens and high tunnels as well as additional art-based programming while opening up the acreage to the community as a whole. Soon a thriving community grew out of what was once a neglected and underused space.
As counsellors, we may not have access to large tracts of land and we may be in a large city but we can still do what we can to introduce nature into treatment.
Ideas for nature inclusion therapy include:
- Bringing clients to natural settings whenever possible: be it fields, wooded lands, waterways etc. You only need to be able to find a safe environment that you can ensure privacy.
- Educate clients on the benefits of time in nature.
- If possible add garden areas to your practice.
- When possible add animals to your practice.
- Promote outdoor activities for your clients and their families.
- Add plants to your office space.
- Hold wellness day events that incorporate nature-based activities.
- If you lack open space partner with area parks, farms or other landed programming.
- Encourage clients to unplug from electronics more often and embrace more natural pursuits.
- Promote the preservation of open space.
- Assign hikes, meditation in nature and related activities to clients as homework.
There is much to be found to help our clients if we simply pay attention. Who knows, you helping them to reconnect just may help you and yours at the same time.
Be safe, do good.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA