Forest Mind/Metsämieli

The originally Finnish Metsämieli-method (literally, Forest Mind) aims to develop one´s “mind skills” using nature and specifically the forest as the backdrop with already built in mechanisms to improve ones health and mood.

Nature has been proven to improve our health through different ways. Lowering blood pressure and  stress hormone levels in our blood, and improving our mood are just some of the proven benefits we can enjoy after spending some time in nature. Furthermore, studies show, that being exposed to nature or natural elements can affect our emotions and even behavior.

Metsämieli-method is harnessing these benefits and using the forest as gym for both body and mind. Therefore, the Metsämieli-method includes exercises that help us to relax, rejuvenate, de-stress, re-energize and therefore support our mental and physical wellbeing. These exercises can be done in the forest, in the park or even at the office.

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My Forest Mind/Metsämieli approach

I followed the Metsämieli guide training in Finland and am now applying this method to the Belgian environment. My walks differ from the Metsämieli walks in Finland because of  the surroundings: in Finland forests are more accessible and more abundant, translating to less people and less noise in the forest.

In Belgium, and specifically, Eastern Flanders, the forests are much fewer and farther between, which is why some transport is almost always necessary and getting into the “mood” is a bit more challenging as one is never alone in the forest and because there is always noise. But there is beautiful nature to be found in Belgium as well, one just needs to know to look for it!

To tackle the challenges posed by the location, I am combining Metsämieli- method, i.e.  light exercise (walking) and mind skill exercises,  with anecdotes about what we see when we walk, to help people “see the forest from the trees”, and also appreciate the similarities and connections between us and nature. Though the forests might change, and themes of the walks as well as, the focus of my walks is always on finding a moment of calm in our busy lives, hearing ourselves and our thoughts better in the quiet of the forest, and leaving refreshed and re-energized.  And creating the readiness and need to come back for more, with or without me.

I want to stress the fact that I am not a therapist, nor have I any qualifications to give perfect strangers guidance on how they should be living their lives.

The bottom line of why I do this is because I want everyone to go to the forest more. I believe that anyone who finds their way to the peaceful arms of the forest will soon see the quality of their lives improved. Forest Mind/Metsämieli method gives me the tools to help you to approach your own mind from a different angle, providing you with some other perspectives, and reminding you to slow down, to stop and to look around you. Therefore, as a Forest Mind/Metsämieli guide, I am a mere  “forest buddy” who helps you to stop and smell the roses and who accompanies you, so you don´t have to walk alone.

What does a Forest Mind/Metsämieli walk entail?

As we walk, we take the time to drill in to some details in the surrounding nature through stories about the location and the specific plants, trees and animals that live there (I can´t help myself,  I am a Natuurpunt trained nature guide, after all). We do exercises to open our senses and that way, open ourselves to the forest. When we are tuned in, we can hear ourselves better. This is the best time to do some exercises.  The exercises stem from a mixture of mindfulness, coaching and positive psychology and make use of the natural elements, the trees, leaves, water, and everything else around us as inspiration.  We try to do our Forest Mind work as quietly as possible, to allow us to take in the silence. That´s what these walks are also about: room to listen, to the nature and to yourself. We work alone, in pairs and in group, but all the work you do, is for yourself, nobody else. After all, according to the Forest Mind/Metsämieli philosophy, we are all experts of our individual wellbeing.

Every Forest Mind/Metsämieli walk will be different. Not only because of the weather and the natural elements that can surprise us, but because of the people who participate in the walk.

When & how long?

Generally the walk takes about 1.5-2.5 hours and the distance we cover is anywhere from 2 to 5 km.  To enjoy the silence and to make sure we do not run into crowds that can disrupt us, the walks take place early in the morning or later in the afternoon/evening, depending on the season and the day light hours. It is also possible to go for a walk during office hours, if you specifically ask for that.

Where?

As the name implies, Forest Mind method is best practiced in the forest. Though it can be taken to other environments as well, due to the challenges posed by the environment I mentioned earlier, I prefer to keep the walks in areas where there is mostly forest cover. I am starting from areas that are familiar to me (Merelbeke, Munte) but I am looking to  branch out to other areas as well (Heidebos, Vlaamse Ardennen..). This all takes some time and effort, as I want to get to know the environment and the route well beforehand to be able to tell you something about the nature there as well.

How much?

The walks cost 5 euros per person per walk payable on the day self. Same price for children and adults.

The next dates for Forest Mind walks (all requiring a sign up beforehand):

  • NATUURPUNT MECHELS RIVIERENGEBIED MUIZEN – MECHELEN: 25/01/2017 (Nederlands)
  • GENTBOS, 2km walk (Merelbeke): Sun 29/1/2017: at 9.30-11.30, meet at Poelstraat parking (English, nederlands)
  • GENTBOS, 2km walk (Merelbeke): Sun 05/2/2017: at 9.30-11.30, meet at Poelstraat parking (English, nederlands)
  • HEILIGE GEESTGOED BOS, 5km walk (Merelbeke/Munte) – Sun 12/02/2017: at 9.30-12.00, meet at the parking of Zoete Zonde cafe (English, nederlands). Note that this is a longer walk!

If you would be interested in organizing a Forest Mind walk for yourself or a group of friends, co-workers or others, get in touch with me and we can plan a walk together!

A Forest Mind walk for parents and children is also in the works so stay tuned!

If you have questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact me.

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More information about Metsämieli method (in Finnish) can be found here.

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Forest school in Belgium

Quite unexpectedly, I heard about a forest school in Belgium. Someone who had the same trajectory as the kids in their reflecting vests heading toward a big park in Gent mentioned it to me. Apparently there had even been a piece in the newspaper about them. How could it  be that I did not know this?

My guess is because the “Buitenklas” (Engl. outside classroom) takes place as part of the Steiner school and for most people, the forest school sounds like something the Steiner school could have invented by themselves. After all, the Steiner school is all about the natural material, the softer approach and closeness to nature (says me, who has little to no exposure to the Steiner school — until recently).

I had a date with Claudia, a Swiss born teacher at the school in the early afternoon, when the class had already returned from their site. Claudia asked me to come at an occasion when the kids are not there, so as not to disrupt the class. For me this was perfectly understandable, and also something I didn’t deem necessary. After all, I do know what the kids are bound to do in the natural surroundings.

We first went to check out the first site they had had. This was a hilly little forest corner at the outer banks of Bourgoyen park. However, because the site was not closed off , there was no way to protect the tree houses or other structures the children had built from being broken down by others. On top of it, there was too much dangerous trash being left behind at the park, so Claudie went to look for a new site. They finally found one, from the large garden of a nice couple very close to the initial site.

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Claudia and the parents build a shelter for the children and acquired other materials that would be needed at the Buitenklas, such as a fireplace, storage facility. Because this edge of a garden was for the children´s use, they were able to start their own little vegetable patch and a herb spiral and claim the site for themselves. They were also able to leave their treasures as they were knew that they would be able to find it all back the same way they left it.

img_20161024_150728The Buitenklas is outside every morning  until about  12.20. Claudia is at the site  from 8 onward and the children are brought there directly by their parents or they walk to the site  together with the child carer who waits for the chidlren at the school. By 8.45 they are ready to start the day. By the time everyone has arrived, the children who have arrived as first ones, have already had the time to play.

The day starts with a moment sitting down in a ring in the shelter and greeting everything around them, the plants, trees and the bird. The day is filled with singing,  moving, doing handicrafts and having a chance to participate in the chores, such as making soup, cracking nuts etc. On Tuesday´s the children get to enjoy an open fire, an important natural element to us all. The nature around invites the children to use their imagination so toys are not necessary though there are some dolls and hand puppets that can be used. There is also a “mud kitchen” where getting hands dirty is a requirement. The chidlren get used to using tools such as  saws, hammers, sandpaper, wool  etc. to build structures to play house in, to play the supermarket, etc. On top of that, their site invites them to run through the bamboo thickets, play hide and seek and observe the nature around.

The Buitenklas has been running since September 2012. Claudia says she is doing the same things she would be doing inside, only, she is using less paper and pencils. The children enjoy playing outside and the parents have been supportive. Those wanting to enroll their children in the Buitenklas need to still go through a waiting list.. The parents who sign up their children for the Buitenklas, are aware of what they are putting their kids into and therefore there have been no difficulties in having the children be correctly equipped  in terms of clothing etc.

Claudia feels lucky to be able to run her Buitenklas outside as she realizes that this  is not self-evident. However, as the ideology of learning outside is close to the ideology of the Steinerschool, it is less of a hassle and work to motivate the leadership to find the money for the extra child carer to accompany Claudia outside everyday.

The waiting list for this class goes to show there is need for such education. As I am about to send my 2.5 year old in the school, Claudia´s Buitenklas seems like the obvious choice. However, I take my children to nature and I make sure they play outside every day.Therefore,  I feel that there are more deserving kids out there who would need this place more than my little one.
I find it sad that the value of free form nature play has yet to be widely recognized in Belgium. It is still the privilege of a few children, whose parents are aware of the importance and let´s face it, probably anyway bring their kids to nature on a regular basis. Those children, who would need it even more urgently, i.e. children of parents who do not spend time outside in nature or see little or no value in environmental and nature education, are being left out as the schools are not pushing free form nature play. Though every bit is better than nothing, I doubt that a week at the sea, or a week in the forest class, is enough to help build a nature relationship where there has been none.
The Buitenklas allows the children to come in contact with the familiar nature, learn about it through observing it and interacting with it, and build a bond with it. What you know and love, you want to take care of as well.  Applies to many things, doesn’t it?