Member Stories: Off the Record Bristol and Nature Works

Nature Works is an innovative project dreamed up by lovely people at Off the Record Bristol. The project seeks to reignite young people’s sense of belonging in the natural environment, their community and with themselves.

Taking various forms, the project offers outdoor 1:1 therapy sessions, weekly drop-in group sessions and partnership projects with other organisations in the city. It has been enormously successful in engaging young people ordinarily discouraged by more formal settings and from minoritized groups.  

What’s more, Off the Record has seen a reduction in the number of appointment cancellations and a plethora of positive responses to therapeutic support in and with nature. So, what is it that makes nature work? 

Working with Nature 

We are not apart from nature, we are a part of nature, and the Nature Works project takes advantage of this deep-rooted connection with the natural world.  

Nature Works offers young people opportunities to opt for nature-based sessions. A part of this offering includes group sessions aiming to foster a sense of community in the natural environment. These weekly drop-in sessions include a range of alluring activities such as gardening, over-fire cooking and crafting outdoors, using natural materials. Cooking sessions are particularly adept at inspiring a sense of community among refugees and international groups, as young people can share their culture with their peers. Above all, these group sessions offer something fun to do and feel good about.  

The Nature Works team also partner with other organisations across the city to offer alternative monthly sessions. An upcoming partnership with the Belmont Estate invites young people to take part in nature connection activities before a two-day camp on site. This already hugely popular program allows young people, some living in urban areas, to be transported to another world (metaphorically of course). Experiences such as these can be transformational. 

Young people take the connections made during sessions away with them, so that they can continue to reap the benefits, be it through a renewed connection with nature, with peers or with a specific space with which they resonate.  

Nature Works offer several outdoor spaces for young people to choose from for 1:1 therapy sessions. Reported benefits include a reduced need for eye contact, increased ease in a de-medicalised space and an improved sense of wellbeing among both young people and therapists.  

Works of Nature 

Of course, access to nature is a privilege and one that isn’t necessarily always granted to all of us. This is certainly the case for many during the winter months. Luckily, Off the Record has found ways to bring nature works sessions indoors. Sessions adapt to bring the outdoors in in a manner of different ways, be it through physically bringing greenery inside or creating an imagined space through the use of the calming sounds of nature. Adapting the project in this way makes connections to works of nature more accessible, demonstrating how the benefits don’t have to be exclusive to those with access to rural spaces. 

Similarly, during the pandemic the project moved online and, in a time, when all of us sought connection in isolation, offered young people opportunities to connect with nature and one another. Despite the physical distance, young people were able to continue to meet with peers online and take part in activities from home. Activities encouraged young people to enjoy the nature around them and find meaningful connections by collecting autumn leaves for example. Simply caring for plants has been found to help young people develop a sense of reciprocity and learn to trust again.   

Nature, works 

“Neuroscientist Semir Zeki discovered that when we experience beauty we activate the same neural pathways that light up when we are in love. The beauty of nature in some of us can stimulate serotonin and dopamine, the brain chemicals that make us feel good.

Therapist Olivia Woodhouse

Dealing with trauma starts in the body. It requires the individual to come into their physical self in order to work through and acknowledge the physical impact trauma has had upon the body. As nature engages all five of our senses it can really help us to engage with our physical body and aid in overcoming dissociation. The weather can also offer us meaningful metaphors, and hold a mirror with which to reflect. 

Similarly, outdoor sessions can offer solace to young people experiencing eco-anxiety in the face of the environmental crisis. Be it through meeting like-minded young people with a shared passion for the environment, making connections with young people currently experiencing the climate crisis overseas or discovering local and tangible solutions to environmental degradation such as building circular economies, taking part in activism or growing your own fruit and vegetables. The solution to eco-anxiety may for many young people be found in the very place they fear the loss of; the natural environment.  

Above all, the Nature Works project shows us how being in nature can help us be present. Nature inspires us to look around and be truly present in the moment, offering respite from thoughts of the past or future. In short, nature definitely works.  

About Member Stories 

Each story offers a vignette of the network. By opening windows into member services, we hope to shine a light on the amazing work quietly taking place, sharing inspiration and improving experiences for young people across the UK. 

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