Woodlands Family Days are for the child, their siblings and their parents. They offer the opportunity to be together in a relaxed and restorative outdoor place and through activities such as making fires, building shelters, cooking and singing together they have fun and build relationships. The days also offer the opportunity for families experiencing similar issues to meet and talk.
What We Did
The CAMHS Learning Disability/Family Intensive Support Service (East Sussex) works with children and young people who have moderate to severe learning disabilities as well as behavioural, emotional and communication difficulties.
Families frequently say it’s impossible for them to go out together because their children’s behaviour is so challenging and difficult. These children and young people have higher rates of depression and anxiety than their peers, as do their parents. Siblings can also feel overlooked as it can feel like their parents’ attention is focused on their brother or sister. As a result families that are already stressed and struggling to cope can become even more isolated.
Most services are directed at one part of the family and do not necessarily focus on building the strength and resilience of the whole family. Woodlands Family Days are for the child, their siblings and their parents. They offer the opportunity to be together in a relaxed and restorative outdoor place and through activities such as making fires, building shelters, cooking and singing together they have fun and build relationships. The days also offer the opportunity for families experiencing similar issues to meet and talk. This is something which parents benefit from as they often do not have the usual opportunities to meet with other parents.
Parents have support from staff and volunteers which means they are able to relax and engage with their children in a way that is not always possible, enabling the children to fully participate in the activities requires enormous preparation and support from the staff. They do this with passion and enthusiasm, ensuring that no issue is an obstacle, and have tirelessly promoted and built this project.
Wider Active Support
We work collaboratively with Circle of Life Rediscovery CIC, an East Sussex-based not for profit organisation that works to reconnect people of all ages and from all backgrounds to the natural environment. The Trust team has worked closely with the Circle of Life to devise the activity days and conduct risk assessments to ensure that the activities and environment are safe and appropriate.
The project has grown to include Parent Volunteer Days. Parents come to these when their children are at school and help to work in the wood. These days have proved to be really successful as the parents feel such a sense of achievement. It also gives them the opportunity to meet and talk with each other.
Feedback from parents has been overwhelmingly positive. Their comments include:
“We’ve never had the chance to mingle with other autistic families. People here look after everyone’s needs. It’s real learning about how to spend time with your child and make it enjoyable for the whole family”.
“I know now that it can be good to be around other people. I don’t have fear anymore or worry about how other people feel about my child being different. I was so isolated. If I’d known earlier about this….now I feel I can talk about my problems and be understood, I have never experienced this before. Thank you. You are all amazing people.”
“I had a brilliant day and felt very relaxed and loved the woods and the quiet life and thoroughly enjoyed [learning]… how to make camp fires and cook on a camp fire. This environment is really perfect and safe for children who love the outdoors and learning new things. The staff were brilliant and made us feel very welcome and very supported. Would love to come back again as the day was great and the kids were kept busy from beginning to end.”
Siblings have also responded positively to the family days:
“We were all happy because when my sister is unhappy she can make us all feel unhappy. It was nice to see Mum and Dad happy, my sister is such a vast subject that can make everyone unhappy, but on the woodland day these problems didn’t feel like they were there.”
“When my sister laughs it’s a moment of pure enjoyment that I love, it felt like we were on a new frontier. I was free to do things and I didn’t have to worry about helping mum and my sister.”
Looking Back/Challenges Faced
The activity days work really well and there is very little we would change. We are proactive in seeking feedback, and there is a focus on developing these days jointly with families so that the project evolves to cater directly for their needs. We feel it is important to connect with families prior to Family Days so that specific needs can be prepared for and catered for on the day.
Leaving the woodland environment was harder than we’d imagined it would be for some of the children and young people. After having such a positive experience many found it quite difficult to leave. The team spoke with the clinicians working with the family and the parents for ideas of how to motivate the child or young person to leave the wood, settle into the car and go home. Based on this a bespoke plan was created for each child or young person. For example, we used pictures and visual resources for one child; for another we ensured that there was food in the car.
Another challenge was using wheelchairs on the woodland terrain when it was wet. We managed this by ensuring a rotation of three or four people per wheelchair to help us move through the woodland.
This is the biggest challenge. Circle of Life Rediscovery has managed to secure funding for the project in the past and they continue to seek funding for future days.
The CAMHS LD/FISS team have also secured funding from the SPARK Life More Ordinary grant scheme, and also from a local charity based in Eastbourne.
In addition, this year (2016) NHS England funded the project for the first three months of the year. There is currently funding for Woodland Days until December 2016.
The Woodlands Project provides opportunities for problem solving and exploring alternative ways of managing behaviours. Being in the woods with the family provides a wealth of concrete examples of behaviours and strategies that can be referred back to and used as points for learning, exploration and illustrating ideas in future meetings with parents.
A number of clinical psychologists have attended one of the family days and said that they found the environment to be extremely useful, offering a unique opportunity to get to know the family in a way that’s not possible in a traditional clinical setting.
They said that it “facilitated relationship building with the family as well as providing an opportunity to observe family dynamics in a completely natural, unobtrusive way”.
Another clinician observed that, “The gentle, clear, and calm approach used by the Woodlands team enabled the child, as the day progressed, to physically let go of his mother and join in more. Having his mother and CAMHS LD/FISS worker present helped too with this increased independence. He became notably more adventurous and confident in exploring the woods no longer needing to cling to his mother for support or guidance.”
Parents have found the days overwhelmingly positive and encourage others to take the opportunity if it is offered to them:
“If I was giving advice to other parents about whether to attend a woodland day or not I would say: Give it a go. Throw yourself in there. There are people here to help, everyone is the same, from similar backgrounds. I’d definitely tell them to do it. Nothing is a problem, it’s lovely.”
Other parents have found that it allows them to spend time together as a family, which is something they cannot generally experience:
“We have never used a service for the whole family before. We don’t get out much, I think this is the longest our son has spent outside in living memory. This is phenomenally good. He is safe and his sisters are happily occupied, we haven’t had that kind of freedom before.”
“Our son LOVES the outdoors but to be honest we have tended to exclude him from going outside, But today has given us a different perspective that it is possible.”
In May 2016, Circle of Life Rediscovery won the Environmental Achievement Award at the SPARK Awards, sponsored and presented by the South Downs National Park and High Weald AONB. The SPARK Awards celebrate the achievement of those working to improve the lives of young people across East Sussex.
The project has been going for three years. It is still in the early stages and is growing, so whilst experiences have been shared amongst parents and clinicians, it has not yet gone further.
Is there any other information?
A short film about the project has been made thanks to further funding from NHS England: http://www.circleofliferediscovery.com/index.php?page=the-woodland-project