This blog is by Dr Kate Hamilton who recently presented at The Future of Parks and the Positive Impact on Well Being. This is the first in a series of blogs sharing the impact of what Actif Woods Wales do, why, and how. Kate will also be blogging about the challenges of monitoring and evaluating wellbeing, and understanding the impact.
What is Actif Woods Wales?
Actif Woods Wales is a project that helps people improve their health and wellbeing by getting them involved in activities in woodlands. It’s delivered by a small, part-time team of us at Coed Lleol, the Welsh arm of the Small Woods Association, in partnership with a wide range of voluntary, community-based and public sector organisations and numerous independent activity providers in 5 areas of Wales.
What do we do?
At its simplest Actif Woods Wales invites people to participate in facilitated group activity sessions in woodlands. The activities vary from walking and woodland gym sessions to bush craft, green woodworking, conservation tasks, arts, crafts and mindfulness. A key operating principle is that participants shape what they’re offered, telling us what they do and don’t like, trying out new things from time to time and developing programmes which reflect their capacities, interests and goals.
Some participants are referred from such organisations as Mind, Alzheimer’s Society, Macmillan Cancer or the National Exercise Referral Scheme, and occasionally sympathetic GPs. Others come because they’ve seen our posters up in the neighbourhood, heard about us in local or social media, or through word of mouth.
We are totally inclusive
We don’t turn anyone away: our strapline is ‘getting healthy the woodland way’ so we assume that anyone responding to that must feel they have something to gain and can benefit from what we offer. This means we end up with a tremendously diverse range of participants.
In a nutshell, woodlands are good for people – physically, mentally and emotionally. As well as our own experience there is an extensive scientific evidence base which shows this, looking at both forests in particular and green care and contact with nature in general.
So, we are confident that what we offer is good for people’s health and wellbeing: it does ‘make people better’. At the same time it’s not a treatment or a therapy in a conventional sense. That is, we are not doctors or therapists, we don’t diagnose people’s health conditions and we don’t put together courses of treatment that are specific to an individual’s needs. Instead, participants decide for themselves whether and how intensively they want to join in: we just check that they are fit to participate and willing to tell us what we need to know about their capacities and limitations, and then take a gentle and iterative approach to introducing them to activities, adapting and extending in response to their feedback.
Why this approach works
It works because what’s offered is sensitive to people’s needs and capacities. Every session is facilitated by skilled and experienced activity leaders, and one of the key skills they demonstrate every session is the ability to accommodate different needs and interests and improvise around the unexpected, whilst keeping everyone safe, happy and to time.
It also works because the approach is holistic, integrating exercise, being in nature and taking part in purposeful activities into one safe and supported experience. It taps into participants’ needs on many levels and offers them multiple pathways to wellbeing. If you’re familiar with the 5 Ways to Wellbeing, for instance, you’ll notice that all of these are present. It also empowers people to forge a positive relationship with nature, and encourages them to turn to this as a lifelong strategy for looking after themselves.
Perhaps most importantly, participants are there as whole people: they are not defined or labelled by their condition and, beyond telling us what we need to know to keep them safe, it’s up to them whether they find it useful to talk to us – or anyone else – about it or not. This in itself seems to be a hugely important contrast with participants’ other health care experiences and strikes me as a key part of what makes it so effective.
What the feedback says
To me one of the most interesting things is that many, many participants report positive impacts on aspects of their wellbeing that go far beyond what they originally came for. In particular, lots of participants join with an idea such as needing to get a bit fitter, but don’t consider themselves to need improved mental or social health. Yet, after attending for a while they will often tell us that what they really appreciate are unexpected impacts like de-stressing, relaxing, gaining confidence, and enjoying other people’s company.
It’s also evident that some participants report wellbeing benefits even when objectively their underlying health condition has not – or cannot be – improved. For those people what the project offers is not a solution to their health problems per se but new opportunities and positive, sustainable strategies for coping with the inevitable ups and downs or long term decline associated with their diagnosis. And on this level it seems that the whole-person, holistic approach is particularly welcome.
All of these observations strike me as strengths, not weaknesses, of the approach we take – but they can make it pretty challenging when it comes to comparing our impacts with other types of health intervention and persuading the professionals to take it seriously (of which more in the next blog!). But it’s worth reminding ourselves that even the most mainstream of definitions of health appreciates that
‘Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ World Health Organisation 1946
So there’s nothing new-fangled or alternative about looking beyond the direct treatment of diagnosed illness for ways to improve health. This is what Actif Woods is out there doing, and we are ready and willing to collaborate with whoever else is interested in learning from it.