In June 2021, the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare (CSH) launched a programme of ‘NatureWell’ sessions for staff at NHS Trusts in Bristol, Kent, Liverpool, London and Sussex. These sessions, run in partnership with Natural Academy, teach healthcare professionals how to use nature to boost their wellbeing. Over three weeks, three intensive, three-hour sessions enable them to experience the healing power of nature and to gain inspirational techniques they can use on a regular basis.

Contact and beauty

The first session encourages participants to engage with the beauty of nature using all their senses.

Participants are invited to sit in a circle of chairs in a wildlife-rich area, tucked amongst trees and long grass. There, connected with the green space, they have a grounding mediation, using all their senses to tune in with their natural surroundings. This is followed by an exploration of their natural selves’ and how personal, social and ecological elements interlink with each other.

The course made me realise that being supported by nature as a non-judging, safe space is so relaxing, you can blend in and just be.

NatureWell participant

The second element, beauty, is introduced with a discussion about how the participants engage with beauty, and what parts of the natural world they find particularly captivating. They go on a wander to gather things they see as beautiful, observing what catches their attention the most, whether that is flowers, leaves or pinecones. They transform these items into ‘beauty weaves’ using Y-shaped sticks as mini looms to create their own unique nature tapestries.

Participants and course leaders during a NatureWell session at Southmead Hospital
Participants and course leaders during a NatureWell session at Southmead Hospital. Photo: Phoebe Webster / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
A participant with her 'nature weave' during a NatureWell session at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
A participant with her ‘nature weave’ during a NatureWell session at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Karen MacKelvie / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Emotion and compassion

In session two, breathing and grounding techniques connect participants to the here and now and give space for reflection and the development of compassion for oneself and others.

Participants consider what emotions we share with the natural world. Looking inside for anger, fear, sadness and joy provokes very powerful nature connection experiences, with participants finding that nature mirrors our internal worlds. Taking heavy issues to nature may help move difficult or stuck feelings and make the load lighter.

An exercise which takes participants back into nature to receiving compassion from living things brings an understanding of the benefits of compassion and the possibility of finding it in the natural world. The participants are then given an opportunity to offer something back by, for example, creating bird feeders from apples and seeds and hanging them on trees.

Taking part in NatureWell has really shifted my perspective of the role nature plays in restoring and uplifting my wellbeing. It has enlightened me of the tools and knowledge to build resilience against stress and to overcome hurdles; most importantly reminding me of the wider picture and system of which we are a part.

NatureWell participant

Meaning and integration

Session three focuses on creating meaning out of natural experiences and how natural objects can anchor the significance of those experiences.

After a mindfulness moment to settle into the surroundings, participants consider what it is for something to have meaning and how we can create meaning from our experience. Narrative is introduced as a technique for using nature to open our minds to the bigger picture. Participants practise finding and exploring something in nature that has meaning for them, and use nature metaphors to relate these things to their own lives.

Meaningful natural objects are collected, displayed and shared with the group. By reflecting on those choices, participants are enabled to identify ways that nature and their nature learning from these sessions can be used in daily life to continue growing and working on nature connectedness.

Participants created natural bird feeders during a NatureWell session at Southmead Hospital
Participants created natural bird feeders during a NatureWell session at Southmead Hospital. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Course leader on a NatureWell session at Southmead Hospital
Course leader on a NatureWell session at Southmead Hospital. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Background

CSH initiated this project in summer 2021 to give staff concrete ways to use nature to boost their wellbeing, and will be offering training to health practitioners in how to facilitate Wellbeing in Nature sessions later in the year.

The project was evaluated throughout and the results from that study will be published here when complete.

This project was funded by the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund. The fund was developed by Defra and its Arm’s-Length Bodies. It is being delivered by The National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with Natural England, the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission.