Carl Dutton is a mental health practitioner, Forest School leader, Nature Well facilitator and psychotherapist. He works for Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust.

How time has flown at Alder Hey since 2019 when we presented our initial pilot work in Springfield Park, where the hospital sits, using a Forest School approach to working with young people with a range of mental health issues.

In those early days we had the good fortune to be supported and trained by Lancashire Wildlife Trust with two CAMHS workers gaining qualification as Forest School Leaders.

We developed a programme of adapted Forest School within the park which used many of the woodcraft techniques along with storytelling, drama vignettes, and playful exploration within the wooded area in the park. It was creative in its approach, much like the Forest School model.

Obviously, we took a break during the coronavirus pandemic. Once contact and being in groups was the norm again, we re-started the programme and, with other colleagues, also developed a wider social prescribing model of therapy for young people. We created a wider offer to meet the needs of these young people in recognition of the terrible impact of the pandemic on many young people who were told to stay in, avoid others and forego normal developmental aspects of life.

Many young people were, and still are, reluctant to come to clinic/hospital appointments. CAMHS services became stretched through young people with anxiety, low mood, and lack of motivation. This had roots in the pandemic increasing the numbers who wanted to access the service and a social prescribing model was launched to meet the ever increasing demand.

We have therefore created an internal on-site offer which still includes our Forest School sessions, a more mindful programme called Nature Well, Walk and Talk sessions for individual therapy and Growing Well which is based in our newly created Chelsea Flower Show Garden.

Our external offer has been to signpost activities and work in partnership with local third sector services on things like fishing sessions, access to outdoor activities and sport/leisure opportunities.

The Nature Well programme was developed by the Natural Academy and we had a number of staff trained by them to be Nature Well facilitators. The programme has a structure which includes exploring the following areas: contact, beauty, emotion, compassion, meaning, and integration.

We have also offered and run staff sessions for team building and staff wellbeing using the Nature Well programme. This programme is based on eco-psychology and sees humans as part of nature and not apart from it. Health and balance can be brought about by an appreciation of how being and doing respectful things in nature can have a positive impact on our whole health status – be that a reduction in stress, lowering blood pressure when being physically active (walking/gardening/etc) and improved emotional regulation.

Art cards made as part of the FRESH CAMHS programme at Alder Hey. All rights reserved.
Art cards made as part of the FRESH CAMHS programme at Alder Hey. All rights reserved.

Since our early days the nature-based activities have increased and are seen as part of the therapeutic offer for CAMHS children and parents. Many sessions include child and parent doing the work together which helps both to gain something from the activity. In fact, many of the parents report how it has helped them feel less stressed or worried. In addition, the child has seen their parent in a different way and they have made better connections with each other in the natural environment.

In terms of our future working in nature we are planning to have an outdoor dome structure installed this summer through Alder Hey’s Children’s Charity and this will allow us to work outdoors but be indoors in a structure that opens out onto the park. This will provide a true sense of biophilia having nature nearby when at times the weather can mean we can’t work outdoors. The dome means we can be as near as possible and be warm and protected at the same time.

The park is a wonderful community space which allows us to run these sessions and is only a stone’s throw from the main hospital site. It is a space that has many outstanding trees, a great and wide variety of birds (last year we had two buzzards circle the site) and some interesting plants which include wild geranium and bluebells as well as fungi like Jelly Ear.

Over the next few years we are also working with colleagues from Liverpool John Moores University to research more specific outcomes around nature-based work with children.

Let’s hope the next five years will be as productive as the last.

Carl Dutton- Mental Health Practitioner/Forest School Leader/Nature Well Facilitator/Psychotherapist


Carl Dutton at Alder Hey. All rights reserved.
Carl Dutton at Alder Hey. All rights reserved.

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