Magic Moments - Wellbeing work with Children on a Farm

A group of children run up through the orchard, they stop, we take a detour to look at some rabbit holes, they pick an apple from the tree and eat it, throwing the core into the hedge. We have a chat about what might eat the apple core, and what might eat the rabbit, they carry on running looking for the next thing. They have fun. Another day a child and parent come to a beautiful room on the farm venue, they have a therapy session with a child psychotherapist, the child is adopted and is struggling at school and with relationships. After the session the mother and child stop to feed the chickens. Although these two activities are at different ends of a spectrum of what we offer, there is an underlying foundation, or what we call "metaskills" to the work at the Centre. 

"Metaskills are the feeling qualities, or attitudes that bring learned skills to life and make them useful.” (Amy Mindell)

We have been working with children for more than 10 years, on the farm growing food and therapeutically, and we have noticed that where these two core areas overlap and mingle is a rich seam of wellbeing work connecting people and nature. We aim to expand this wellbeing work both in our projects in East Anglia and at the developing new farm at Huxham’s Cross in South Devon.

Mark O'Connell practices child and family psychotherapy having worked for many years with looked-after and adopted children in the NHS in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. His background is as a Process Oriented Psychologist further specialising in attachment and trauma work. Marina O'Connell runs an organic farm, weaving in Permaculture design and Biodynamic preparations on the soil. She has worked with children for many years in schools developing outdoor classrooms for kinaesthetic learning, and inviting them to the farm for workshops and experiences around food and creativity.

Well-being work on Farms

Wellbeing is a bit of a buzzword at the moment. We use it as a term encompassing physical and mental health, and a sense of "feeling good" whatever our objective state of health. We all know that it is good for us to eat fresh fruit and vegetables, to take regular exercise and to have a sense of connection and belonging. Combining these regularly helps people to feel happier. When children visit the farm they experience all of these levels; they eat some fresh food, they take some exercise, they have fun, and they leave buzzing. This was my observation many years ago whilst working at Dartington Hall and training unemployed adults in horticulture.

One day one of my trainees turned to me and announced that we had cured him of his alcoholism. This surprised me as I didn't know that he was an alcoholic and I had not made any specific interventions to do this, apart from the general work on the farm and creating a positive sense of teamwork. As Mark was studying psychotherapy at the time this sent us on a path to find out why this work outside often makes people "feel better".

We set up the Apricot Centre in 2006 to deliver this work and have developed approaches which are underpinned by ‘metaskills’ or feeling attitudes for working with children in a natural environment. At its core we hold the key ideas that diversity and "following the feedback" is key to any sustainable systems whether it is choosing a green manure or working with a child in a garden. Some other metaskills which feature greatly are; playfulness, creativity, and nurture. The Apricot centre has been working for 10 years on this small 4 acre site in North Essex. We have also recently taken on the lease for the new Huxhams Cross farm in Dartington South Devon, with the Biodynamic Land Trust and as a part of the Dartington Hall Trust learning campus.

The Huxham’s Cross Farm project will be a small mixed farm on 35 acres, producing biodynamic fruit vegetables and eggs. Wellbeing work will again be woven through the farm environment and facilities with the focus of engaging children, families and schools. Therapy and Attunement Work Research from Essex university shows that doing exercise outside improves the mental health lift, not only does the exercise give a mood lift but this is enhanced by being outside. Just walking into a park like environment is known to lift mood measured by the heart rate and blood pressure dropping, and hormones released in the brain. We deliver therapy to children and families that have suffered trauma, and we often do this in a farm environment. We have seen that this produces an extra lift and complements the therapeutic work.

A teenage girl with a severe eating disorder worked at the Apricot Centre. One day we decided to walk down to the end of the farm into the wooded area. She suddenly had a profound sense of freedom, remembering dreams of riding on wild horses. Leaving the therapy clinic and walking in nature had helped to facilitate a psychological shift from control to energised freedom.

Traumatised children often have raised stress levels and stress hormones, such as cortisol which inhibits the immune system and the ability to learn, and adrenalin which enables flight or fight where there is danger. Continually raised stress levels in childhood leads the child into fixed states of alertness. As Louise Bomber puts it, "their stress tank is already full" so any small extra stressors can trigger the fight, flight or freeze reaction. This might be something as small as being hungry and then having a teacher give out complex instructions. When a child has a low threshold they can only "act out" the rush of stress hormones as they have not developed the ability to self-regulate, or to exercise the "executive functioning" part of the brain to override their reactions, nor do they yet have the emotional intelligence to recognise what is happening to them. Adults on the whole rarely recognise this behaviour as "stress" and may label it as "naughty" often escalating the behaviours as the child becomes more stressed and the adult becomes more angry.

There is a widely held belief that any trauma suffered by a child, especially preverbal, will be forgotten later on, however this is not the case, and in fact it becomes hardwired into the brain and remembered in the body. Being on a farm or in nature is ideal to help children to regulate their emotions, hopefully with the help of an adult. Having fun, playfulness and humour, curiousity and excitement all illicit the happy hormones in the brain; oxytocin, endorphin, dopamine, and serotonin, and reduce stress levels. Louise Bomber suggests various ways of lowering stress levels including; creating safety, taking sensory breaks, doing calming tasks such as sharpening pencils, watering plants or weeding. Research in Ecopsychology studies show that being outdoors, especially in green places with trees, slows the heartbeat, lowers blood pressure, and hormones such as adrenalin can be worked-off through the physical exercise of farm work or just walking. Dentists have found they can use less pain killers if the patient looks at images of a natural place during the treatment. Just thinking of nature has the calming effect of being in it.

Our aim is to give children strong memories and experiences in nature which can later be recalled as a resource in times of stress, also developing pathways and experiences of regulating emotional states through activities on the farm.

Metaskill; We observe the children and if they are stressed we take them outdoors for simple activity. We create a beautiful environment with trees and flowers for them to work in.

Following feedback

Where children have experienced difficult attachments in their early life, Mark O'Connell has developed "Attunement methods". Here the parent observes the child's behaviour and interacts with them based on the feedback that the child gives. In early years this is mostly non verbal so the parent or carer needs to be taught to recognise signals. Although this sounds simple, often parental expectations and social norms are so great that the parent does not focus on the child and respond to their feedback. Following the child's feedback helps to build secure attachment. This can be done in play sessions indoors to great effect.

We aim to offering a range of activities on the farm where positive attunement can happen in a "green setting". Activities such as picking food, cooking the food and eating it, risk taking such as lighting a fire, taking time simply to "be" or interact with others. Once the parent starts to follow a child's feedback this builds a positive feedback loop allowing this relationship to build and flourish, and is also taken inside by the child as a positive relational experience.

Mud pie corner

One of our more interesting experiences was working with some 8 year old boys in a school who could not listen nor take instructions, but kept bashing the ground, in the wrong place damaging the soil structure. They were so persistent that we spent some time observing them with the presumption that something must be right about bashing the soil, while trying hard not to "tell them off". After a time it became apparent that they were playing "mud pies" although developmentally they should have done that at ages 2-3, and now they were 7-8 it just seemed naughty and irritating. Being urban kids they may have missed out on playing mud pies. We realised that, as with adopted children, having missed a stage of early development they had to go back to make it up. So Mud Pie Corner was born. We turned over a bit of ground where we didn't want to grow anything, gave them trowels, watering cans, and containers, and let them go. What we found was that they would play mud pies for 20 minutes, and then "report for duty" coming back to ask for tasks, and they were then able to hear instructions and follow them. This was quite startling for their teachers as they quickly became some of the most talented and able gardeners we had in the group. The children were probably also regulating their stress levels with this behaviour as well.

Metaskill; Following nature - a child’s feedback flows and turns like a river as they signal to us what they need and want. As adults we attune ourselves to the child. This aids attachment.

Educational Work

Many children are kinaesthetic learners, that is they learn by doing. The farm or outdoor classroom offers a wonderful learning experience for all children but in particular for those kinaesthetic learners as this is not a learning style that is provided as much in schools. Children learn about plants and how they grow, food, and where it comes from, reproduction, animal care. This can be a vehicle for teaching maths, science or reading and writing, improving motor skills, working as a part of a team, following instructions and problem solving. It is also fun, the children are engaged and once a child in engaged they learn. They learn without realising they are learning.

Our experience in working in some of the most deprived areas in the UK is that using these techniques with children has strong effects, generally increasing the learning outcomes, literacy or maths, it builds self esteem, and the children become more motivated and involved. What we aim to do is to engage a child in an activity, use age appropriate language, have a story on hand, relate the activity to a fairy story, film or computer game. Such as ask them to tell you about their films/ games. Keep chatting. Ask questions; How many broad beans have we sown now, how do you spell ‘broad bean’. Make sure you revisit so the child receives the positive feedback from their work. This recycling of feedback is mirrored in how the broad beans are planted, grow, and ideally they later eat and enjoy them as well. What is important when working with plants (and children) is that if looked after well the plants grow, respond positively, they do not judge, bully, nor take sides.

Metaskill; Creating and discovering positive feedback loops between the child, the adults, the plants and the animals. This builds and reinforces self-esteem in children.

Attachment to place

Of course these children might go home to something completely different but sowing the seed of a positive outdoor experience at a young age may have a profound effect. In my teaching and training career I ask most of the adults working in conservation and sustainability if they had a "magic moment" in nature as a child. There is normally a 90% plus show of hands for this. I believe that by providing these "magic moments" we reconnect children to the wilder world and motivate them to work in it as an adult. Jay Griffiths explores this idea in her book "Kith" Belonging to a place and knowing a place can give huge pleasure and sense of "contentment". Kith in this sense being a place where we belong and know intimately.

If we are attached to a place and we care for it arguably then we will also take better care of it, making longer term and more sustainable choices for that piece of land or even the planet. Theodore Rosak goes so far to suggests that “there is a synergistic interplay between planetary and personal well-being”(Rosak 1992 p 321). Recreational work Food is often a tricky subject for children who have suffered trauma, where it has been neglected, withheld or used as a source of comfort. The wrong kind of food, high sugar, caffeine can exacerbate raised adrenalin and cortisol levels making behaviour even more erratic.

We ran a series of ‘SENSE’ workshops with "Looked after Children" where we picked, cooked and then ate lunch together. Firstly they ate a lot, they ate a huge range of fresh good quality food that was brought in, just loving it. They cooked, they laughed, some of them ran away quite often across the fields and then returned. They presented the food to all the other children on the workshops and it was eaten, with great joy and gusto. Although there was nothing remarkable about this, it gave a huge amount of joy to everyone present, a high sense of achievement, and the broadening of taste buds. For some of them it was the normalising of food. Food is also about nurturing and "looked after children" have suffered a lack of nurture at some point in their history. Eating and food brings huge pleasure to people, and in these workshops we aimed to model nurturing to the children. These days nurture rooms in schools are common, providing a hot drink and toast as a basic tool to help children to focus in schools. Just imagine how much more could you do to nurture children with a whole farm and kitchen on hand?

Metaskill; Cooking and sharing food together. Many families do not sit and eat together at a table together anymore.

Eating together gives a social sense of occasion, and a sense of belonging. It also provides positive feedback for the children who have prepared the meal. We also wash up together, which can also be a fun and shared activity. And Just having fun Richard Louv writes about "Nature Deficit Disorder" in children. Children simply don't have enough time outdoors "mucking about" taking risks, having time to explore and follow their own interests and nature.

We aim to give children this time back as much as possible with a "Farm School" on our farm. This is run like a Forest school in its ethos. That is; following the child’s interests, giving them a range of activities and letting them explore. It is child-centred learning at its best. We also extend this to include the farm work as well, collecting the eggs, feeding the chickens, picking apples, making apple juice, sowing seeds, planting lettuce, eating lettuce, sometimes lighting a fire and drinking hot chocolate and having a chat.

Children love "poo" in all its forms so sometimes we go on a "poo" hunt to see how many different types we can find. This makes them laugh and generally laughing is good as it raises the oxytocin levels. There is no specific outcome to this work or play with children on the farm and we describe it as "generally having a good time in nature" as that is what it is. "Magic moments" happen when we allow this time, and those are the times that we remember.

Spending time in nature also allows a child to follow momentary interests, existing half in dreams and half in the everyday mind. This natural curiosity creativity playfulness and nature oriented mindfulness is something which we gradually train out of ourselves seemingly to become more functional members of society. It is deeply refreshing for children to have time away from screens, instructions, deadlines, and targets. Just to "be" for a while. We think it is healthy for children and adults to have time in the "dreaming space" as well as what we call "consensus reality".

Metaskill. Find space and time for magic moments. Playfulness and joyfulness in nature. Don't make it too difficult or complex for the children.


Louise Bomber (2016) Talk at the CACH reunion

Jay Griffiths (2013) Kith the Riddle of the Childscape Hamish Hamilton London

Kaplan R (1973) The Psychological benefits of gardening Environment and Behaviour 5 145-161

Richard Louv (2005) Last Child in the Woods Atlantic Books London

Amy Mindell. (1996) Metaskills; The Spiritual Art of Therapy. Tempe, AZ: New Falcon Press. 1996

Arnold Mindell. (1985) Rivers Way; The Process Science of the Dreambody New York & London: Routledge

Arnold and Amy Mindell Website:

Pretty JN, Griffin M, Sellers M, Pretty C. (2003) Green Exercise; Complementary roles of Nature, Exercise and diet in Physical and Emotional well-being and Implications for Public Health Policy. CES occasional paper 2003-1 University of Essex, Colchester

Pretty J, Griffin M, Peacock J, Hine R, Sellens M, South N (2005) Countryside for Health and Well-being University of Essex Colchester

Roszak T. (1992) The Voice of the Earth Touchstone Books New York Ulrich RS (1984) View through a window may influence recovery from surgery Science 224:420-21