Clare Cullen, Zambia (Zimbabwe)

Taking the kids outside: Forest Bathing and Forest Therapy in the education of Africa’s children

Clare Cullen leads a quiet life, but her journey is a gentle roller coaster of dedication to children, yoga, hiking and frequent wildlife encounters. She has a BA in History, an MA in African Studies and a post graduate degree in Education.

She has been a teacher of Social Sciences at an international school in Lusaka (Zambia’s capital city) for almost a decade and has seen tech-dependency in children as much as the sense of happiness nature brings them. Climate change is an issue that especially concerns her, and she understood that is not statistics that will bring about change but rather love and care for the environment

A Certified Forest Bathing Guide and Certified Forest Therapy Practitioner trained by FTHub, she realized Forest Bathing gave her “the language” for her own connection with nature and for the children she works with. 

Climate change: numbers or love for nature?

“When I finished university I wanted to do something interactive, as I found academic work lonely at times, so I took a postgraduate certificate in Education and started teaching at a school in Harare, Zimbabwe, which is where I grew up. After three years I decided I needed a break and to start bringing yoga to children. But the economy was really challenging and I think trying to earn money from something that I love made me less passionate about it . 

“I got an offer to teach at the school I am at, so I moved to Lusaka. It was a totally different approach to learning at the school and I instantly fell in love with it. I teach Social Sciences, so I get to engage with topics that I love, like human rights, environment, well-being, climate change, ecosystem degradation. I try to incorporate that into my students wherever possible.

“My reading and research and experiences led me down this path: more and more environmentalists are realizing that providing statistics about climate change isn’t going to provoke action. What is going to provoke action is that people really care and love the natural environment where they live ».

The forest and the language 

“For me, Forest Bathing was so wonderful… I suddenly had a vocabulary to describe what I had experienced myself. I started to consciously notice that I was more creative when I walked in the forest, was calmer, just felt better, I was cooled there. Reading and starting to do the training just gave me the language. I am somebody who’s very logical and rational and really wants to learn and so that was a really big gateway for me. 

“And the more I had read and experienced nature connection and being in touch with the natural world the more I started to see the need for this in young people ».

“Teaching in a pandemic for nearly 2 years I had periods of intense online work and I’ve seen my students fatigue very quickly by this. I don’t like using the word addicted but tech dependent, and how that affects their social interaction with each other, their sense of happiness. 

“I now want to bring to young people the experience so that they can figure it out for themselves, that when you are in the natural world, when you are less dependent on technology you actually do feel better. And so I incorporate the outdoors as much as I can. 

“I think education has to change. If we are going to tackle the problems they are facing in the future, we need to experience the things that really matter, for me, is the environment. There’s a lot of things that are bending in the fabric of things that matter ». 

The goals of mainstream education  

“I have incorporated nature connection activities in my online classes. I start my lesson with 10-15 minutes of, for example,  an activity in which everyone has to choose and speak as if they were a being of nature. The response is great, they come back excited and really fresh. It doesn’t have to be an hour, it can be 10 minutes, 5 minutes. It’s refreshing, it rejuvenates them. 

“I’m trying to get a programme up and running with the Special Educational Needs Department at my school, for kids with ADHD, dyslexia or dyspraxia, they just need a little more support in particular learning areas. 

“From my Forest Therapy Practitioner training I’m developing a programme for these children from 12 to 14. I know in my heart of hearts that even if these kids do it once a week, they will grow in confidence, they would be more creative, they would feel more comfortable with one another.

“I’ve seen with Forest Bathing walks with young people specially at 10, 11, 12, that they are still kids but transitioning into teens so  they worry about what they  look like, what would people think of them, and these things actually start to fall away… And it is specially great for them to see adults sort of playing in nature. Makes them feel that it’s ok to have fun and be childish. This is something that mainstream education needs to consider ». 

The landscapes shaping us: the underground forest

“I have been able to climb mountains in Africa and this expansive vast landscapes just kind of makes you feel very spiritual actually. I’m not religious but I definitely believe we have this higher connection with nature. It’s just a matter of reawakening it. 

« Growing up in Zimbabwe, almost all of my family holidays were camping in national parks and coming face to face with wild animals. There are like this stereotypes of Africa and people tend to think about the savanna, with cebras and buffalos and lions. You definitely get that, but just a couple of weeks ago I was in the oldest national park in Africa, which is in Zambia. It’s just flat lands (Liuwa Plains National Park), an expansive landscape, just grass as far as you can see. You think it’s grass, but there’s actually a small type of tree that grows and actually is described as an underground forest

“You also have regions very mountainous, granite rocks, waterfalls, rivers. While Zambia is one of the most forested countries in Africa, Zimbabwe is more diverse in landscape: there are high, misty mountains and rivers, granite hills, very hot and dry lowlands. You still get the rhino, the lion, the leopard, the elephant. Southern Africa is still somewhere where wild life can thrive. I am very lucky to grow up here. 

“Layer by layer I came to Forest Bathing and Forest Therapy. I hope I can take learning outside, where it really matters. That’s where I am today”.

 

 

Ph: Courtesy Clare Cullen

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