Spending time outdoors has been scientifically proven to benefit our wellbeing. Especially during this global pandemic, many people have rediscovered their relationship with natural surroundings. But the potential of being outdoors goes beyond mental health: It can enhance the quality of time spent with others and strengthen community ties.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Karolina Leszczynska-Gogol from London Wildlife Trust, who was my volunteer manager back when I lived in London. I started volunteering in practical wildlife conservation last winter after experiencing severe burn-out and it has played a crucial role in my mental and physical recovery. After a few sessions, I had noticed a considerable improvement in mood and productivity.
Karolina has been working for the trust for many years and has managed diverse groups of people at a beautiful nature reserve in Kings Cross. In our interview, she speaks about the importance of socialising in outdoor settings and the effects of this on mental health.
In Conversation: How Outdoor Work Benefits Mental Health
Jessica – Tell me a little bit about the work you do.
Karolina – I am based at Camley Street Natural Park, which is an amazing urban nature reserve in Central London. All our nature reserves are free of charge for anyone to enter and explore. We strongly believe nature should be accessible for everyone. Camley Street is an extremely important place for the local community. My role is all about connecting people with nature. I run practical conservation sessions as we need to look after this amazing nature reserve. Volunteers help us on-site to look after the place. The majority of the work happens from late autumn and through winter. This is the best time to manage all the different habitats, as you do not disturb them that much. You don’t want to disturb them in spring when birds are nesting. I started at Camley Street 11 years ago as a volunteer. Now I manage the site and I’m over the moon with my position. It’s been an amazing journey for me. This place is very close to my heart. I hope I will be taking my grandchildren there one day.
Jessica – Maybe we’ll visit with your grandchildren and my kids one day.
Karolina – Yes! I know as a matter of fact that some visitors remember the place from when they were kids and now they bring their children. That’s really cool and it’s very important to show our little ones that you don’t have to travel far from town. In London we’re very lucky. London is very green and there are many of those places like Camley Street which are not just well manicured parks, but also great for wildlife. I strongly believe that those wild spots are equally, if not even more important.
Jessica – Yeah, it’s important to remind people that they can find these places nearby, even in the city. Would you say that outdoor work influences the wellbeing of volunteers?
Karolina – It’s huge. In my eleven years with LWT I’ve been working with many different groups of people: school groups, seniors, ex-offenders, people who suffer from mental health problems, volunteers of different ages. And I can definitely see how this work influenced their wellbeing. It is important to have a structure and know that there is someone waiting for you every week, same time, same day. Socialising is very important but socialising in a natural environment is even better. Being surrounded by trees and birds has a very calming effect. Scientists discovered a long time ago that being in green spaces is extremely important. And especially in these days people are realising how important it is to spend time outdoors. It’s a form of meditation. And you feel a hundred percent better after a walk in nature. It’s really important to be surrounded by trees and not everyone has that privilege unfortunately.
Jessica – I’m really interested in the work you did with ex-offenders. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Karolina – It was in cooperation with Pentonville prison. After they had finished their sentence, they were given the opportunity to get involved with various activities and practical conservation was one of them. Leaving prison is a very difficult time, most of them don’t have even place to live and many are addicted to drugs or alcohol. After discussing with the head office and volunteers, I decided to mix my regular volunteers with ex-offenders rather than separating them. And I felt like this was a good idea. They had a chance to socialise and have a friendly chat.
At LWT, we are all very open – there’s no judgement. And that helps a lot, especially those who might feel a bit lost in their life and are not sure how others might see them. But I must say that there is a need for more preparation to be done before ex-offenders can join these sort of projects. Most importantly, they need help finding a place to stay and treatment for addictions. But obviously it’s easy to say that, but maybe not so easy in practice. There is money involved, housing issues and other things. Generally, I wouldn’t say the project was extremely successful, but there were a few individuals who definitely benefited from those sessions.
Jessica – I believe there should be more effort made from the authorities. I feel that often ex offenders will be sent to these projects almost as a replacement for therapy, which is not appropriate. Probably because it’s cheaper. But we shouldn’t just send them to conservation work and expect their problems to just resolve. Ex-offenders have the right to therapy and housing, especially when they are willing to get better and contribute to the community.
Karolina – It’s a tricky subject. Still, I feel like there is a much better approach here in UK than in many other countries around Europe.
Jessica – Yeah, definitely. But also a lot of room for improvement. Can you tell me a bit more about cases where you’ve seen the mental health of your volunteers improve over time? Have any of them shared their stories with you?
Karolina – It actually happens on a regular basis, especially now during the pandemic people need to be able to go out and socialise in nature. Many volunteers say to me that they have no idea what they would do without these sessions. Often, volunteers share on their registration form that they have mental health problems. Some even ask for a chat after the induction.
I had a gentleman in the past who over a period of two months became a completely different person. He told me on day one that he was going through a difficult time in his life. His wife had left him, and he had lost his job. It was too much for him. He suffered from severe depression and shared that with me. It’s always good for me to know because I tend to check on those volunteers more often. After two months, I noticed that this gentleman became a completely different person. He came back to his normal mental health state. He stopped volunteering with us because he got a new job, but he’s still in touch and visits the site from time to time. There were many cases where I noticed a huge improvement and what’s very important is this acceptance by others. I don’t share sensitive information with any other volunteers, but when they come to their first session, they feel accepted. No one is judging them. No one is asking unpleasant questions. That helps a lot.
Jessica – What are your favourite things about outdoor work?
Karolina – I’m privileged that I have this job where I can spend time with amazing passionate people who are in love with nature. And they help me to look after this amazing place. And I really enjoy the balance between office work and having the chance to work outdoors. But it’s all about people and connecting people with nature. Some people, like those with mental health issues or ex-offenders, are a bit reserved at first and don’t know what to expect. It’s great to see how it’s a matter of half an hour and they just relax straightaway at the first session. That gives me a lot of satisfaction.
There is an element of psychology in my work as well which I love a lot. it’s very important to be open to others’ needs and to read them as much as you can. They don’t even have to say much, you can tell a lot from facial expression or body language. With people who come to my sessions on a regular basis, I can tell straightaway if something is not right and if they want to, they can speak to me about it. It’s sort of like a therapy for them. I’m not suggesting I’m putting myself in the role of a psychologist, not at all. Sometimes people just want to be able to talk to someone. They’re not expecting advice, they just want to be able to share, and that helps them. That’s what I like. So, to summarise: It’s people. People and natural surroundings, that’s a brilliant combination.
Jessica – To you personally, what is the difference between experiencing nature in a group and being with nature by yourself?
Karolina – Recently I’ve been working from home a lot. And I get this strong need to go somewhere, so I tend to go for a vigorous walk for half an hour around lunchtime. And just recently, I’ve been doing it on my own because my husband is at work. But I notice I’ve got a strong feeling to connect with someone so quite often during those walks. I notice in general that I prefer to experience nature within a group. I’m definitely an extrovert rather than introvert. Being surrounded by nature, even better.
Jessica – Interesting, I’m the complete opposite. When I’m in nature alone, I don’t mind not seeing another human being for the whole day. But I also really enjoy experiencing nature with other people. I’m trying to be consistent with taking two days off a week. And usually I spend one day alone in nature and one day going somewhere with another person, and I feel that that’s a healthy balance. I am an introvert but living alone can be difficult during lockdown. I think having a balance based on your individual needs is very important. And if your balance requires you to spend more time with people, then that’s absolutely what you should do.
Karolina – Recognising what our needs are is very important and helpful in our lives.
Jessica – Do you think it could benefit communities to do more nature-based work? Do you think it could aid community cohesion if outdoor work was more widely available in cities?
Karolina – Yes, of course. We often have corporate groups at Camley Street. These people spend the majority of their life in the office. And very suddenly they have a chance to be outdoors and do something completely different to what they usually do. They have a chance to speak to their colleagues, get to know them better. People connect in a different way when they are surrounded by nature compared to indoor spaces. That’s one of the reasons why communities should have projects like these and spend more time together outdoors, learning new skills and making things. It’s unbelievable what we can do just with our hands and natural resources. And I believe we should get back to our roots.
Please consider joining your local Wildlife Trust. Even a small one-time or monthly donation makes a big difference in preserving natural environments and protecting wildlife.
If you are interested in volunteering with your local Wildlife Trust, you can find many different opportunities here.