8. March 2022

Outdoor activities improving young people’s mental health and wellbeing

Birkheads Wild is helping vulnerable, young people and their families have more opportunities to explore, discover and enjoy the outdoors with support from Kavli Trust.

All photos: Birkheads Wild

“Getting outdoors is vital to every aspect of our health and wellbeing. We are excited to announce this two-year partnership with Kavli Trust, who will be supporting our work with some of Gateshead’s most vulnerable young people,” says Fiona O’Connor, founder and director of Birkheads Wild.

Birkheads Wild is a social enterprise founded and run by Fiona O’Connor in Gateshead, North East England.

The main goal is to support teenagers who are unable to attend school and who have complex mental and physical health problems, by providing them with tailored, long-term support and outdoor opportunities to learn and develop better mental wellbeing through outdoor learning.

Kavli Trust has allocated £25 000 (300,000 Norwegian kroner) to Birkheads Wild in 2022-2023.

“With the funds from Kavli Trust we will be able to expand the capacity and work to strengthen the mental health of some of the most marginalised teenagers in Gateshead,” says O’Connor.

Beautiful surroundings

The idea for Birkheads Wild came when she and her husband bought a beautiful piece of property. O’Connor wanted more people to have access to the outdoors – especially children who come from low-resource families or who for other reasons do not get out into nature.

Birkheads Wild runs an Outdoor Youth Club for 11-14 year olds, after-school Forest School clubs for under 11’s, as well as alternative education provision for young people excluded from mainstream education. This is done in collaboration with local authorities and relevant bodies such as the child welfare service.

Unable to attend school

“Birkheads Wild is for everyone, however we are increasingly finding that the areas where our work can have most impact is with those young people who do not ‘fit’ in the mainstream schooling system or those who have least opportunity to spend time in the outdoors,” says Fiona O ‘Connor.

According to O’Connor there are a growing number of teenagers in Gateshead who are unable to attend school as it can not meet their individual needs. It could be an ASD diagnosis, severe anxiety and/or depression, survivors of domestic abuse, emotional and psychological problems.

“These children have little or no current support through the local authority system and often have complex needs,” says O’Connor.

SCHOOL IN THE FOREST: First forest school session of 2022 with River Tyne Academy PRU. Photo: Birkheads Wild

Community garden with goats and hens

Their two acre site in rural Gateshead has a community garden, goats and hens, a pond, and a yurt. All programmes and teaching are carried out outdoors, and the philosophy is that being close to nature and animals in itself has a health-promoting effect.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on the mental and physical health and wellbeing of many young people across the world, including the UK.

In the area of Gateshead some of the neighbourhoods are among the most deprived in the country. With the funding from Kavli Trust, O’Connor sees a number of new opportunities.

“Overall we are seeing an increased need and demand for our services. 2021 saw the initiation of several new projects at Birkheads Wild, including our Youth Board – made up of 14 local young people who are at the heart of our future planning,” she adds.

“We have also become a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Licenced Centre and initiated an exciting young person-led community project to fundraise, plan and obtain a large skate ramp in one of our local parks”.

New attractive partner

Rune Mørland, head of the Kavli Trust grants programme in the UK, says Birkheads Wild is a new and attractive partner for Kavli Trust.

“We are excited about the commitment and philosophy behind their activities. In addition to having a good effect on mental health, we know that mastering the natural environment and outdoor activities can promote personal development and social inclusion,” says Rune Mørland.

“The property is perfect for reaching the various target groups. Kavli Trust is happy to support this work, which gives more children and young people the opportunity to take part in outdoor activities and social inclusion,” says Mørland.

Norway Spruce

The grant was awarded a short time before Christmas in 2021. The two-year partnership with Kavli Trust will support both the expansion of their core organisational staffing and the costs of an innovative new two-year pilot project.

The aim of the project is to help eight young people in Gateshead with alternative education and forest school provision to make long term improvements in their mental and physical health and wellbeing.

To celebrate the grant agreement, young people from River Tyne Academy PRU planted a little Norway Spruce in the community garden.

The River Tyne Academy is an alternative provision setting based in Gateshead. It has approxemately 100 children on the roll, many of whom have either been permanently excluded from mainstream education or are ‘hard to place’ in other schools.

“We hope the spruce will grow as our partnership grows. We also made edible tree decorations for the local birds and wildlife,” says Fiona O’Connor.

NORWEGIAN SPRUCE: Young people from River Tyne Academy PRU planted a little Norway Spruce in the community garden in December last year. Photo: Birkheads Wild
EXPLORING THE OUTDOORS: The students from The River Tyne Academy are some of the young people who get the opportunity to discover and explore outdoor activities with Fiona O’Connor and her team at Birkheads Wild. Photo: Birkheads Wild