Why nature can prove the best therapy

A Sense Scotland outdoor session in the Cairngorms. Picture: Contributed
A Sense Scotland outdoor session in the Cairngorms. Picture: Contributed
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FOR people with disabilities, outdoor activities are great for self-esteem, sensory stimulation and even language skills, writes Joe Gibson

Scotland has some of the most spectacular natural environment in the UK. People with disabilities can benefit from accessing this environment and participating in outdoor activities in exactly the same way as everyone else. They have the same right as everyone to enjoy fun leisure activities outdoors for that purpose alone. All too often people with disabilities, or those who support them, have to justify the educational or health benefits before spending time and money on a leisure activity. It is not as if people with disabilities cannot derive the same benefits as everyone else from participating in activities outside; indeed I would argue there are additional benefits.

Being seen actively participating in activities can raise the general public’s perception of people with disabilities. Some people have commented to me when we have been climbing with those who Sense Scotland supports, that is only when they are on the ground and signing that they realised they were deafblind. This is of particular importance to those with more complex disabilities who have a history of being excluded. Taking part in outdoor pursuits can lead to new relationships being developed, beyond peers and direct support staff.

There is no question we are now less physically active as a nation and this applies in particular to people supported in social care.

It is often difficult to motivate people to just keep fit. Yet while exploring the natural environment and participating in outdoor activities, the exercise element for people with disabilities can become almost incidental. This has many positive implications, from weight management to cardiovascular fitness, and the development of both fine and gross motor control. Recently, recognition of the positive benefits of exercise for mental health have been highlighted, with mental health charity Mind securing £1.5 million of National Lottery finding from Sport England. There is even research evidence which states that just being outside has positive benefits for people’s health.

People with multi-sensory impairments and profound learning difficulties often find traditional educational practices challenging. However, experiencing and learning about nature and the environment while actually being in the middle of it can be really successful. Rather than reading about them in books, people could be exploring different trees and their leaves, while having the chance to experience the full range of Scotland’s weather! The Curriculum for Excellence supports this approach, with cross-curricular aims for outdoor learning at all levels.

There is also the possibility to learn about your self through engagement with the outdoors. One man supported by Sense Scotland is congenitally deafblind and enjoys taking his shoes off to walk barefoot through grass and leaves. While being supported, his walking is much better when we walk through the woods on rough (interesting) ground rather than when walking on the smooth (boring) pavement. He has developed the confidence to walk independently in a field, despite having no points of reference and has learnt a strategy to move around independently while sitting down, when the ground is too rough. Another young woman we support, who has a dual sensory impairment and uses a wheelchair, has used an adapted climbing harness and pulley system to independently climb to the top of a wall. This has had really positive implications for her self-esteem, helping her to overcome her initial fears.

For some of the people we support, we have used outdoor sessions with very specific therapeutic aims, particularly in the area of language development. By engaging in meaningful experiences that are both tactilely rich and authentic, we have been able to develop the beginnings of a shared, declarative language. Memories of activities and experiences were used as subjects for conversations about the past and future.

The tactile nature of the environment is also a great place for sensory stimulation. Lying in the woods with the sun flickering through the leaves as they blow in the wind, with the smell and touch of the leaves underneath you, is as good as any sensory room with the added bonus of fresh air.

This is a timely opportunity to explore this area further. The recent greenability conference brought together disability and environmental organisations to learn about and share good practice.

The conference looked at the impact outdoor spaces can have on people with disabilities, in terms of their health and wellbeing. Also ParaClimb Scotland, run by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, is a new, inclusive climbing competition and festival, one which myself and several of the people we support will be enjoying greatly.

But, perhaps most importantly, I would urge everyone to just get outdoors and enjoy the best free facilities we have in Scotland.

• Dr Joe Gibson is Sense Scotland’s outdoor and physical activities co-ordinator. For more information contact him on jgibson@sensescotland.org.uk


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