Aims: Those who experience emotional and behavioural difficulties or mental health problems, are unemployed or bereaved, or have been in trouble with the law can be socially marginalized and can become isolated from their families, community and wider society. This paper explores the role of active hands-on contact with the environment through a general environmental volunteering programme and through a targeted therapeutic volunteer programme, highlighting how these two approaches can potentially aid some marginalized people to reintegrate into society.
Methods: This study draws on concepts from the well-being and social capital literatures and refers to two separate pieces of research: Study 1 was based on general environmental volunteering primarily in northern England and southern Scotland; and Study 2 focused on mental health participants at Meanwhile Wildlife Garden in London. Ethnographic and interview data were gathered from participants as a means to understand the benefits they gained from their voluntary involvement. The participants all volunteered to undertake the activities they were involved in and chose outdoor nature activity as opposed to other activities.
Results: There is self-reported and observed evidence from and of participants in these studies that contact with nature can be beneficial to a range of excluded groups; also the studies show that the learning and curative processes that take place in green spaces can provide benefits in terms of social reintegration of vulnerable young people and adults. Three key themes of particular relevance to the marginalized participants were identified as: (1) improving relations with others and nature; (2) working alongside others who are different; and (3) developing social and employable skills. Active hands-on engagement allows people to work at their own pace, since these approaches are not target focused, and skills and social networks can be developed slowly. Practical engagement in environmental conservation work is one approach that may provide people with a new role, identity, skills and social networks. This paper argues that volunteering in nature has the potential to provide a shared purpose for people, independent of gender, age, physical ability, mental functioning, socioeconomic status or knowledge of environmental management. However, it is recognized that particular people may and do experience barriers to engaging with and enjoying the natural environment.
Conclusions: Volunteering in nature may be particularly effective for those who would like to be outdoors and have more contact with nature yet need specific encouragement and supported/led activities to participate.