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Muddy trainers and emotional health: building resilience through nature

Do you remember the last time you climbed a tree?

I do. After serveral botched attempts I hoisted myself up, breathless, navigated the treacherous gaps in the branches, flinched at what I thought was a nest of man-eating spiders, steadied myself with another branch, stood up straight and looked out from atop my lofty perch. Getting down was slightly more difficult as all the branches seemed to have treacherously re-organised themselves without me knowing, so I took a leap of faith and jumped, crashing gracefully into a nearby bush and got up, dusting myself pretending nothing had happened.

I was 23 years old. Better late than never.

Most of us have climbed a tree (some more successfully than others), started a campfire, or scaled a hill at some point in our lives. Perhaps flown a kite or built a den. We felt excited, adventurous, brave, full of possibility and at times, a little unsure. We navigated unknown territory, be it tree, puddle or pathway, took calculated risks, began to understand our limits, and were present in the moment.

And often, we weren't alone. We were in a group of friends, brave kindred spirits as we built a secret base in the park or competed to skim rocks. Or there was a leader or other adult, teaching us how to light a fire or telling stories that fuelled our imaginations. Without knowing it at the time, we felt connected and included, wanted and successful. We felt validated by the shared experience with others. We tried, tried and tried again, and when we did make it to that tricky second branch we felt a rush of confidence. And if we couldn't, there was someone to help us find the way down. But for many children in the UK, this is not a familiar experience.

It’s Children’s Mental Health week this week, and the theme is ‘building resilience’.

We know that nearly 300,000 children suffer from extreme anxiety, that one in 12 will self harm and that later as adults, one in 4 will experience mental health problems. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14, and 75% by age 24.

We launched Free To Be to help build children's resilience to life's challenges.

For many of the children we work with, growing up without enough food to eat, sleeping in rooms with mouldt walls and broken windows, or with parents struggling with domestic abuse, substance addiction or their own histroies of trauma leaves them feeling anxious, ashamed and without worth or value. With CAMHS staff reporting budget cuts leaving them able to respond to only the most extreme cases, prevantative work to support the social and emotional health of children has never been more timely.

At Free To Be we know that helping young people feel connected and included, wanted and successful, despite the challenges they face, is the key to protecting their emotional wellbeing and supporting their emotional and mental health. Our experience has taught us that shared experiences, in the outdoors or one-on-one with a mentor, that provide opportunities to feel adventurous and take safe risks, help vulnerable children to feel proud, special and that life can be full of possibility - not just threats and challenges. This creates opportunities to work through difficulties with self doubt, anxiety, anger and relationships with others, the belief they are worthy of love and care whatever life's circumstances, and the resilience not to become completely overwhelmed when things go wrong.

For children with emerging social and emotional difficulties, therapeutic adventures in the outdoors and shared experiences such as cooking, art and drama clubs, properly planned and supported, make a lasting difference to their emotional health. In this way, Free To Be, and other voluntary organisations, work to prevent the social and emotional difficulties of today becoming the mental health problems of tomrorrow.

On the path to resilience and emotional strength, we believe that muddy trainers can go a long way.

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