Learning more about the effects of a nature immersion with the help of children’s drawings before and after a forest bath

Some weeks ago, just before the second lockdown in Belgium, I had the honor to guide a forest bath to 34 Flemish children in a nearby village. They were age 10-11. I know one of the teachers very well. I am not only a guide, but also a scientist, always between this boundary of explanation and imagination. In this blog, I want to share my own small assessment of a perception impact of a forest therapy session with kids. I asked my friend to give the children the morning before and after a small assignment. In this blog I share the case, the method and results.

The case – an October afternoon

Here is a small report of the teachers who published it on the website of the school: “First we got some information about (the healing effects of) forest baths. Afterwards we went into the forest. On the pictures you can see us listening to what the forest has to tell us, smelling the scents that are released in the forest, we feel with our hands the earth, and we even taste the forest through an imaginary straw! We also each went out to find a “treasure” hidden from us, and after a little searching, everyone found something beautiful from nature, his/her true treasure! The forest bath guide also taught us how to make a hiding place very quickly and easily by using some sturdy branches. We also had a chat with a tree and some trees even invited us for a cuddle. We ended this super nice afternoon in the forest with a circle talk and a tea ceremony, during which we also gave a cup to the forest to thank the forest.”

The data collection method – children drawings before and after

Using child drawings is not something I invented. I got the idea from a talk with a fellow forest therapy guide of my tribe who works as an occupational therapist in Colorado, with children who have special needs. She had used this method to assess the impact of a workshop about climate change to understand how the perception changed. In academic literature, you find other examples how children drawings could measure some perception change. In the morning before, the teacher asked them to draw or write some words to two questions: 1. What do I expect from this forest bath? 2. How can I help the forest?

In the morning after they had to answer: 3. What did I enjoy? 4. What was I missing? 5. How can I help the forest? Questions 1, 3 and 4 are more for evaluation. What does interest me most is the change of perception, or change of understanding how they – as a person- can help the forest.

The data analysis method : interpreting drawings and words

This is a bit more subjective, because as scientist you have always your own mental models how you view things, interpret symbols and abstract ideas as drawings. As this is a blog and not an article for a scientific paper, I decided not too be too strict to myself. What I did, in a first round I just read all 34 papers, then had some tea and a brownie, came up with some codes/themes, and then I made some word clouds. I am not going to interpret these word clouds, and just let you imagine what it can mean.

How can I help the forest?

Before the forest bath, the big theme was ‘litter’. They often wrote only about that, or drew about garbage and litter. After the forest bath, this theme was still present, but they wrote and draw more, more in theme of ‘giving back’, like giving tea and water, hugging trees, visiting more forests, building homestays for animals… The trees were more ‘seen’ in their words and drawings. They also suggested more about less destruction, like don’t break branches. One kid called for protests against felling trees.

Change of perception

My expectation was that they would all become nature philosophers and activists ;). Of course, that would be a high ambition. I was actually not sure what to expect. It was more an exercise for myself to think a bit critically about the methods and practices I implement and see what it actually means and can generate. It is important to not just assume that each forest bath will help (directly) each participant. As a guide you’ve to be self-reflective, self-critical and think about your methods … and this also means to read about – and test- methods how to learn about change of perception, behaviour, health… as an consequence of more nature immersion in your life. If this was a scientific work, I should also collect data about other factors: the background of each child. Perhaps these children were already exposed to nature. And so yes, in which extent? And there are other factors. And if I would know each biography, even that background information would be difficult to interpret or put in a mathematical model. This kind of research has many variables, so it’s difficult to give ‘perfect answers’ to questions about this practice, but the process of learning, questioning and examining is as important as having all the answers. The journey of a guide -and a scientist – should never stop…