Mental Health Awareness Week

Posted: 19th May 2023

Group of girls running a race

Mount Kelly Connects with Nature

Guy Ayling writes for the Independent Schools Council blog for Mental Health Awareness Week

Finland has just secured the top spot of happiest country in the world for the sixth time running. There are undoubtedly many measures of happiness, but for the Finns, a recurring theme is their connection to nature. We can learn a lot from our Finnish friends, not least a fuller appreciation of the nature that we have on our own doorstep.

We are very fortunate at Mount Kelly. We are built from nature, surrounded by nature and our activities are rooted in nature.

Our Prep and College sites are built on hills on either side of a valley, on the edge of Dartmoor National Park; the ancient River Tavy rushes through the valley, splitting the campus but crossed by a recently constructed linking bridge.

It also rains a lot, but we are used to that.

The school is set amongst 110-acres of woodland: when the mist descends it is easy to mistake the school for one of the 160 spectacular granite outcrops (tors) that make up the jagged skyline around us.

So, with the Finns in mind, and as we reflect on anxiety, the theme of this year’s Mental Health Week, we might think of no better salve than a school’s deep and active connection with nature.

Four of our school teams have just completed the annual Ten Tors challenge, walking up to 55 miles over the some of the UK’s wildest terrain. The teams cross hills and streams, wary of bogs that can trap the ill-prepared; self-sufficient for two days, cut off from the outside world, battling the elements, experiencing nature.

Our world seems obsessed with removing risk, but in the process are we exposing our young to increased anxiety? Our Ten Tors teams accepted the risks, and all made it back. They took responsibility, challenged their endurance and pushed themselves to the limit both physically and psychologically. They will have returned stronger and more resilient. And many have examinations this term too.

We actively encourage continued participation in all outdoor activities for all pupils, because we know it helps alleviate anxiety, especially at examination time. Evidence of this is well documented, but we see first-hand a marked growth in confidence and self-esteem. And we have a proven track record in public examination results too, with over 85% of pupils gaining places at their top choices of universities.

Throughout the School’s history we have embraced a connection with nature. In 1938, pupils were encouraged to keep nature diaries, and many still do. A tree reading bench is dedicated to a former English teacher, and still today, our Prep pupils regularly read outside and explore their surroundings from an outdoor classroom, in the woods, by the river.

Learning outdoors and in nature can be incredibly varied. Recently our Prep pupils helped build wooden monkey bars in the outdoor adventure playground; they dug holes, excavated stones, moved bags of mulch, laughed and were happy. All pupils from Years 5-9 take part in Learning Outside the Classroom programmes, with pupils recently returning from a trip that involved caving, orienteering, a Banksy tour, obstacle course, geography fieldwork, trips to Aerospace Bristol, the Jane Austen Centre and House of Frankenstein, and finally a Welsh National Opera performance.

The Duke of Edinburgh Award provides the backbone of most school’s outdoor activity for older pupils. Over 90% of our pupils take their Bronze Duke of Edinburgh award; over 50% Silver and 33% Gold, with a completion rate of almost 100% across all awards. These remarkable figures suggest Mount Kelly isn’t just another school that does Duke of Edinburgh.

You may also have heard of the Devizes to Westminster canoe race, a novel way of engaging with nature, and one of the most cherished, and arduous, challenges at Mount Kelly.

The pinnacle for many of our pupils is completing the ‘Super 7’: all three Ten Tors categories, all three Duke of Edinburgh Awards and the Devizes to Westminster race. This proves that indeed, most things are possible.

And then there are the 15 different sports and 700 fixtures a year; but this piece is about nature.

Outdoor Education and getting into nature are about developing strengths, allowing time for creativity, imagination and collaboration to flourish; about opportunities for problem-solving in a rich context. Ultimately, it is about being truly involved in life.

Schools have a powerful opportunity, and responsibility to support their pupils to build relationships, not only with each other but with nature; to help them build balance into lives that might otherwise be ridden with anxiety. This may be one of the most important gifts we can give our children at this moment in our history. Take it from the Finns.

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