The Nature and Human Wellbeing Game
Winners and losers? 
Author: Rogerson M; Barton J; Pretty J; Gladwell V 2019 I had the privilege of being alongside Gardiner to witness the release of the first elephants into the Nyosi Reserve. I walk in the woods early in the morning. For a northern hemisphere spring day, the promise of new beginnings are everywhere – fresh green leaves sprouting on the trees and bushes, bird song in abundant chorus.
We heard the first cuckoo a few days ago, screaming swifts, and we have celebrated the arrival of the other migrants such swallows from South Africa, twittering and darting in the sky. Although there is a chill in the early air, the sun is shining through, and life feels good.

Spring in Europe feels very different to that of growing up in South Africa. There I loved the daffodils and their pungent aroma in the garden, fruit trees coming into bud, and warmer mornings and evenings. I remember hadada’s, black collared barbet calls, and hoepoes feeding on the lawn, clouds scudding in a deep blue sky, and vibrancy in colours and life.

I share these memories and experiences because research shows that the highest connection to nature – true connection to nature for humans- is through our senses. The age old elements of our primitive wiring - see, hear, touch, smell and feel are all important. The University of Derby highlights ‘pathways’ to a deepened connection to nature that is not just ‘being’ in it, but connecting with it through these senses, emotions, beauty, finding meaning and compassion.
All over the world because of covid and lock down, people started to enjoy and ‘make use’ of nature or ‘were’ in nature. It was one of the only things that one could safety do, and reports were widely shared by people walking on footpaths and exploring surrounding nature for the first time after living in areas for many years without knowing of their existence. They explored their ‘home’ or ‘place’ – something previously unconnected to. Many continue to engage with these new behaviours today as it made them feel good, whilst others have slipped back into busy-ness extremis and every day pre covid habits. That is simply how life goes…

What is of interest here is what is it, or was it, that made people feel good in nature? Much research and many articles are now written to understand the science behind physical and mental wellbeing in nature. Much is published on brain neurology in nature which produces fascinating outcomes.

Mike Rogerson from Essex University in England, alongside other researchers there have also explored this with the Wilderness Foundation over a period of years since 2007. The research has been published in many resources, with a main focus on the Turn Around programme which is regarded as a flagship outdoor programme for youth at risk, and nature connection activity. The University research explores the correlates of nature connection and wellbeing, behaviour change and how nature exposure is salutogenic (feels good). The engagement of the individual and the environment interact in a helix to facilitate behaviour change. (1) This then leads to outcomes such as mood enhancement affects, stress reductions, directed attention (concentration) improved neural activity, and improved heart rate.
These can be backed up by theoretical frameworks such as Stress Re-education Theory, Attention Restoration Theory to name a few.

TurnAround was designed to create improved behaviour, mood, capacity building, resilience and hope in at risk teens in the UK through wilderness therapy and longer term outdoor behaviour change engagement and processes. The client group are 15-21 year olds with issues of anger, potential or actual criminal behaviour, depression and anxiety, family breakdown and relationship issues, to name a few presentations. Often the programme was seen as a ‘last resort’ and the young people were often regarded as ‘hopeless cases’ and ‘beyond real help’ which in itself is more of a reflection on society than the young people themselves – who are categorised as vulnerable.
The programme is now in its 16th iteration with a long trajectory of young people who have graduated through its doors- many who started with negative judgements -and -most able to refute these by going on to make meaningful and successful lives for themselves.
The programme continues to engage with their graduates and feedback is always uplifting and heart-warming for the team of staff and mentors, some of whom have been there since its conception, whilst bringing in new energy over the years.

Both the narrative research and the quantitative research are significantly positive in the analysis of the change in behaviour and mood outcomes in relation to nature connection. Research by the University also compared outcomes of a range of other programmes and the TurnAround programme, as a vehicle for change, came out top.

This continues to drive further thinking – as whilst our young participants had longevity of nature engagement over 9 months with two weeklong wilderness therapy expeditions embedded, what else was it about that engagement that produced successful outcomes and reporting such as this? One thought is that nature is the holding space or as Mike Rogerson states ‘the vehicle’ for change. Within this, we as humans interacting within the natural world, have to flex, adapt, and cope with adversity and discomfort from time to time in the wild. We also have the joys of awe and wonder.

We are often emotionally and physically out of our comfort zones. This can include being bitten by ticks, mosquitoes, and other insects, feeling the cold and rain, experiencing extreme heat and thirst, sleeping on uneven ground, fears of vulnerability and/or disaster (e.g., sea kayaking in big seas), getting lost, running out of water, alone in a big space to name a few challenges.

We are far from transport, and far from shops. We have to rely on our existing supplies, and we have to work together as each member will influence the safety of the team. We learn about our internal and group capacity – and must find solutions to problems (often as we have no choice) and thus our own internal strengths that we did not know about, come to the fore. We build our resilience. We are focused on tasks at hand. We are uplifted by small wins such as a hot drink or food, a beautiful sunset, a butterfly coming past, and take notice of other details in nature that pass us by normally in urban settings. Nature becomes us and we become nature. We are immersed and engaged fully.

Of major significant too is the quality and encouragement of the facilitators, therapists and guides that lead the programmes. Research into the positive outcomes of Wilderness Leadership Trails many years ago, also by Essex University, commented on this aspect when we evaluated school going teens who went from the UK to South Africa for expeditions in the wilds of Imfolozi Game Reserve on primitive trails. The guides lead with a deep passion and love for the natural world. They created a world of work that was world deeply linked to a spiritual connection, philosophy, commitment to conservation, and is more a lifestyle choice and commitment than a task. Feeling safe with them, relying on them for their needs to be met, allowed students to soften resistance to a new environment and their own growth flourished– leading to greater ability and willingness to flex, think and feel.

Facilitative conversations around the fire, gently encouraging discussion and contemplation, talking in check in circles in the morning and evening about feelings, thoughts and experiences opened communication and connection to self, and solo time high on the hill expanded consciousness and awareness of the other non-human world and our place within it.

Having learned in the wilds of South Africa how these soft skills and heart are essential to wilderness immersion, all the above is drawn into our UK TurnAround wilderness therapy expeditions and other programmes we deliver. Having been jointly founded by the same person, Ian Player, plays a part in the spiritual, intuitive culture of both the Wilderness Leadership School and the Wilderness Foundation UK. The main difference in the UK is that we don’t have the wow factor and humbling impact of big game on our doorstep. What we do have however, are ticks, harvest mites, tough weather such as rain and intense cold, long nights and short days in the winter, and high densities of urbanisation with little wild space that is true wilderness or untrammelled landscape. We do however also have magical sunsets, comfort zone challenges, and opportunities to feel immersed in a wide and wilded landscape – often very much a new experience for urban dwellers here.

We, as leaders and guides, work hard on intrinsic elements for the groups – and bring in factors such as kindness, love, tolerance, respect, and patience to add to the mix. This applies to all outdoor work for sure, but the cold and wet can lead to collapse in morale in young people very quickly, particularly those with little nature experience, and we add in the skills needed to work on elements of resilience, meeting base levels of Maslow hierarchy of needs, play games, find laughter and group cohesion to power through.

We are often unaware of the continual deep engagement with senses in the wild often subliminal but other times fully apparent. Our urban living excludes these connections when we live indoors, with comforts, focused on screens or reliant on taps with running water, stoves that switch on and off, and soft beds, and windows and curtains that shut out noise, light and allow privacy.

A combination of all of this above, and more, leads to the success of TurnAround as a whole.

However, returning to the start of this piece of writing I am left with a dilemma and disquiet.

That is, if nature connection offers such positive human focused outcomes of behaviour change, mood enhancement, resilience and hopefulness…how come that is not always apparent in our overall society wellbeing, nor in our care of nature. If so many are now walking and enjoying nature and feeling good from it, what is missing in our behaviour change that leads to overwhelming litter in parks and woods, taking, squashing and cutting wild flowers, disrespecting farm animals and wildlife, making unreasonable noise and disturbance, allowing dogs to run wild, and polluting rivers with waste such as beer cans, plastic for example. Parks rangers were aghast at the public behaviours during lockdown, and beyond which left mess and waste in their wake. In face all the elements of the 7 principles of Leave No Trace have been absent for many.

Maybe feeling good in nature is not enough, and Mike Rogerson’s attention to behaviour change must also include a change in our behaviour to caring for nature in return for what it offers us in our wellbeing. To meet this needs our programmes also include LNT education principles, role modelling and enacting litter picking and packing out waste, cleaning up after others, recycling, sustainable packaging where possible, rewilding volunteering, eco education about systems and ecology. We bring nature into our circle as part of us, whilst celebrating her gifts and showing gratitude for the natural world and places we are in - as everyday practice.

Currently the UK faces a crisis of green belt loss, intensive housing development, loss of habitat and some of the worst figures in Europe for species and landscape decline. 98% of British wild meadows are diminished, and bird life threat of loss has startling and depressing statistics. Much of the development is linked to economic decline and housebuilding assistance to an economic boost. But what of the species and creatures in nature that depend on healthy habitat? They are out of focus when human development and needs override.

We must use and find models that help people and nature thrive together and not focus on one or the other. Let human wellbeing and links to connection to nature continue to develop and grow, and let’s balance this with a deep, urgent, loving, respectful, generous, kind, interconnected care for mother nature. Without her we are doomed however good we may feel.
Nature is the loser for now, but we as humans are not the winners, we are the losers in the making.
Taken from the: The Green Exercise concept - Two intertwining pathways to health and wellbeing. In physical Activity in Natural Settings. (pp 75-94). Routledge.