What role can outdoor learning play in student mental health?
It seems the answer is: a lot.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 10% of children suffer from mental health issues.In China specifically, studies have shown that about 20% of children and adolescents have psychological or behavioral issues, such as depression, anxiety, and self-harm – with almost 3% of adolescents having attempted suicide. Chinese students face many unique challenges as a result of the country’s culture and history. Pacific Prime identified 3 main factors that influence the cause in rising mental health issues in China: parental expectations, the one-child policy, and left-behind children.
Where does outdoor learning fit into this picture?
Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing, is the Japanese practice of using mindfulness to engage with nature. The health benefits of Shinrin-yoku include increased heart rate variability, improved mood and rumination, relaxation, greater compassion, and other immune-boosting effects – such as cancer prevention – that could last up to 30 days after the trip.
As a matter of fact, the benefits have been so profound that the Japanese government has implemented Shinrin-yoku as part of Japan’s “social prescribing” health programme, and western countries, such as the UK are beginning to implement some of these practices into their own organizations.
The Japanese government utilizes Forest Bathing as a preventative measure that may also ease symptoms of some who already suffer from mental illnesses. The key is to include the practice as a regular part of one’s schedule – ideally at least once a month to maintain the benefits of the practice. Japan has taken Forest Bathing so seriously that the country now boasts over 60 trails in the country and the city specifically for people to go out for a walk to relax and unwind.
What does this mean for educators?
As Wang Ying, a psychologist at the Beijing Reading the Heart Psychological Health and Technology Company stated to the Global Times, “Preventing suicide and protecting the mental health of children and adolescents has a long way to go and will require the joint participation and efforts of children, families, schools and the whole of society.”
” …being outdoors may be more effective because it gently encourages students to bring their attention and awareness outwards rather than inwards”
While many countries may be in a less ideal situation than Japan, educators may still utilize field trips as an effective tool in providing students with a trifecta of benefits in academic, physical, and mental wellbeing. The key is to be part of an experience that focuses on mindfulness. For students undergoing psychological issues, achieving a mindful and meditative state could be risky to their health. This is where being outdoors may be more effective because it gently encourages students to bring their attention and awareness outwards rather than inwards. As such, students learn to ground themselves through focusing on the trees, the grass, and the life found outside the classroom walls rather than on their own inner turmoil.
Given the growing interest in Forest Bathing and how the environment can impact student wellbeing, educators are well positioned to be a part of student mental health intervention. Many mental health solutions are based on building connections between people and their environment, such as with the Japanese government’s social prescribing programme. The Chinese government, too, is taking strides in addressing this issue: according to the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China, they – along with 12 other governmental bodies – plan to equip all schools with on-campus psychological services by 2022.
In light of these government mental health interventions, organizations can also take this route and develop bridges between one another to strengthen our communities – whether it be between government programs or experiential education organizations and schools.
Here at WildChina Education, we value being part of social change that delivers a positive impact to our students. As such, we partner closely with schools and organizations to develop and implement programs catered to the needs of the schools, teachers, and ultimately, the students. China is a country filled with a vast terrain of diverse landscapes and natural landmarks: from jungles to forests to grasslands. Our organization specializes in sustainably utilizing these landscapes as outdoor classrooms that may aid students and schools in providing greater mental awareness, clarity, and health. Our academic standards focus on experiential education, diversity of life experience, and service. Health, safety, and utilizing the latest technologies and research are at the core of our services in creating experiences that make an impact both in – and out – of your classroom.
Author: Rosanna Ho