The forest beside the Durham College Oshawa campus hosts many animals, including foxes, coyotes and skunks.
These days, you can also find Heather Bickle, Durham College’s health promotion co-ordinator on the trails.
Bickle oversees a program, called Camp Wellness, for stressed students and staff who need time to reconnect with nature.
With three activities bi-weekly, students are guided through their anxiety and fears by re-experiencing the childhood wonder for nature and natural earth.
“I kind of think back to if you are younger and ever went to summer camp,” she said. “This was the time that you got to go and be dirty and be in the forest and do fun little arts and crafts and be with your peers.”
Camp Wellness began during the pandemic when Bickle found herself struggling and turned to nature.
She wanted to share the support she had found from nature, so she became a certified nature and forest therapy guide.
On Tuesdays, the Wellness Centre offers forest bathing, a sensory-based experience.
Bickle asks participants to use their senses to engage with the forest during an hour long walk along the trail.
Participants find themselves touching the grass to feel all of the blades on their palms or to listen for the twittering of birds and other forest sounds.
“And this is an hour-long experience. It’s not a hike,” said Bickle, “so I’m not going to take you up a huge mountain. You’re not going to get all sweaty.”
Based on the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, which translates to “forest bathing,” it was developed in the 1980s as a precautionary method of protecting the body, according to Ontario Parks. Spending time in nature can be healing and produce many benefits, mentally and physically.
Nadine Lamarche, a professor in the Faculty of Business and a Camp Wellness participant, said Forest Bathing heightened her senses, giving her “solace from the stress of the work day.”
Wednesdays is Nature Play, the arts and crafts portion of Camp Wellness. Participants look for twigs, leaves, foliage or anything else to create a work of biodegradable art, such as glitter jars.
The last activity is Mindful Farm Fridays at the Centre for Food. Participants are taken through a breathing and mindfulness exercise before taking a walk.
They enjoy the aroma of the lavender patches that grow on the outer edges of the farm and the sight of the fruits and vegetables grown by students.
With so many nature lovers already, Bickle said “the buy-in is much quicker at Whitby campus,” though she said the other population at the campus, trade students, sometimes don’t allow themselves to slow down.
“Sometimes we don’t allow ourselves, especially as adults, these joys we once had. That childlike wonder we once had when we first were exploring nature.”
Bickle says Camp Wellness is about re-prioritizing yourself and your wellness through nature, especially in the face of academic stress, though in Canadian weather this can be a little hard.
As the seasons change, so do the activities. In the wintertime, Bickle plans to have more indoor, craft-based activities such as pressing flowers and leaves. Participants will still go on outdoor walks, but she said they won’t be long enough to get hypothermia.
At the end of the hour, students go back to their stressful reality of assignments and midterms, but they leave knowing what leaves sound like beneath their shoes and what the forest smells like, without the lingering scent of cars.