‘Screens and gaming have massive impact on children’s emotional wellbeing,’ headteacher warns.
A state school is hiring an ecotherapist to do gardening with children in a bid to tackle mental health issues.
Pupils will be given one-to-one specialist wellbeing support through a range of outdoor activities, including growing fruit and vegetables, at Loseley Fields Primary School in Surrey.
It is hoped the “nature to nurture” approach will help prevent young people from reaching “crisis point” with their mental health, as well as offering an antidote to screen time and gaming.
Amanda Pedder, headteacher of the school, said: “It is often doing what appears to be regular activities where a child might disclose or talk about troubles they may be having.”
The decision comes amid concerns about a rising demand for mental health support for young people and a lack of capacity in specialist services.
Earlier this year, the children’s commissioner warned that the UK is at least a decade away from having a comprehensive mental health service for children.
Mrs Pedder told The Independent: “We know it is really difficult to support children in getting access to mental health services until they are absolutely at crisis point.
"We know that early intervention and prevention is the way. Ecotherapy is one part of our remit. It is quite unique and different.”
“Children are facing challenges in this generation that they wouldn’t have faced in my generation. The world of the internet is big and broad and access to mobile phones means children are on tap with their peers the whole time,” she added.
The school is looking to introduce “wellies and waterproofs” into the uniform in the future to encourage children to explore outdoor spaces as part of the curriculum.
Ms Pedder added: “We know that screens and gaming have a massive impact on children’s emotional wellbeing. We often see children re-enacting games and experiences they’ve had on the internet and those are not always closely monitored.
“We want to expand their horizons and give them opportunities to know there are other ways of accessing leisure activities.”
The part-time ecotherapist will work with children at the school on a one-to-one basis and in small groups, working outdoors, creating a relaxed setting for the pupils to talk openly with the staff members.
Jess Bayley, founder and project manager for the Centre for Ecotherapy, said: “An increasing sense of disconnection from nature is impacting on sensitive young people, yet the school curriculum barely takes account of young humans’ need for real-time nature connection.
“Ecotherapy uses nature consciously to support wellbeing and recovery. Although most ecotherapy interventions and research have been focused on adults, a growing body of evidence suggests it also has a positive impact on the mental health of young people.”
Chris Tweedale, chief executive of the Guildford Education Partnership (GEP) which runs the school, said: “Amanda and her team have shown great courage and imagination in addressing the very real issues young children are facing that can impact learning. I hope this inspires other schools to do the same.”
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We haven’t heard of the use of an ecotherapist before.
“But schools often look at ways in which they can support the mental health and wellbeing of pupils, particularly at a time when many young people report feeling stressed and anxious.”
Published in the Independent Newspaper 8th March 2020