Saskia Gillespie
29 Jun, 2023
Why all children need access to music and nature

Take a deep breath, exhaling out of your mouth to create an ocean-like sound. Now place a hand on your heart, feel and listen to that constant rhythmic pulse from inside your very being. Now take a moment to become aware of all the sounds happening all around you. What can you hear? How do these sounds make you feel? There is a symphony of sounds happening all around us, all the time. Nature is our greatest teacher, and we must listen to her music in the sounds of the birds, wind, bees and rain. Sound is the most prominent and important part of our lives, and it is time for us to all take a moment to stop, feel, listen and play.

Somewhere around the age of 7 I began to question why I had to go to school. Why did I have to sit in a classroom every day, with people who picked on me, to listen to things I had no interest in? I was a very anxious child and the thought of being picked to answer a question would make my heart pound in my chest for the entirety of a lesson. The fluorescent lights, bells, shouting and structure was all too much for me. My sensitive soul was constantly fighting against the sensory overload, and I learned to mask and hide my discomfort at a very young age so as not to cause any disruption. None of it made any sense and I hated it for the most part. I would cry and beg to not have to go … but somehow, I survived, by staring out the window at the clouds and birds, doodling in the back of my books, humming songs to myself ,and diving into my imagination. I do have a few fond memories of school and all of these involve the rare times that we’d get to play music and go outside. I spent a lot of my time alone, in nature; making gardens for the bugs and fairies, and singing made up songs about my environment.

I struggled on as a child and teenager, with music being the only thing able to pull me through some incredibly dark times that I know so many children now are still facing. I began piano lessons at around the age of 7, and I loved to play. However, when it came to the strict structure of having to learn specific songs, scales and study for grades, I felt restricted in my creativity. I quit lessons but continued to play for my own enjoyment, improvising and losing myself in the melodies. In secondary school and sixth form I began to explore songwriting and recording and the power that it had in helping me to process my emotions during a very dark period of my life.

Whilst studying for my Popular Music Degree at Goldsmiths UoL, I found myself being led (by the universe) down the route of how music and nature are inherently intertwined. My final project was based around the idea that playing improvised music in nature can help you to tune into your surroundings and connect you deeply to your environment. This was where I began an incredible healing journey through the power of music and nature. Each time that I went outside to play my Kalimba and record for this project, I found myself more and more relaxed and deeply connected to the small wild garden of my London student flat.

By practising meditation, deep listening, and present moment awareness, I found myself immersed in a whole new world of wonder. Marvelling at the beauty in each sound from a tree, insect and creature that wove its way into the soundscape of my recording. I went outside every day and played in the sun, wind and rain – allowing myself to let go of expectations and structure, and simply play my Kalimba with the inspiration of my environment. I created a mini-project for my housemates to do during lockdown, where I wrote a booklet that guided them through this process of deep connection and musical improvisation in nature. Their responses to the experience were extremely positive and I felt that somehow I needed to be able to extend this to more people in the future. I was also taking a module where I learnt about community music and music therapy, which fascinated me and it was during this time that I knew that I wanted to be able to deliver groups where I could help children connect with music and nature in this way.

As always, the universe led me exactly to where I needed to be, and I was offered a job at Ace Music Therapy CIC as an admin assistant. Because of my passion for music, I developed into working as a community musician alongside the team. When Chelmsford’s LCEP emailed us about the opportunity to run a pilot project to help primary school children develop creative skills, I knew that I had the perfect idea for it. My amazingly supportive boss, Amelia, let me go for it and I created the project ‘Music of the Forest’, an outdoor music group for Year 6 children, where they would get to experience the same peace and joy that I do through connecting to music and nature. Me and Amelia (founder of Ace and music therapist) run the group together at a local primary school, and some of the activities that the sessions include are:

  • Meditation and deep listening
  • Improvisational music making
  • Learning songs
  • Movement and dance
  • Connecting to nature (tree hugging, barefoot walking, exploring)
  • Crafting instruments using natural materials
  • Songwriting

In the first session, the children seemed a bit reserved and unsure of what to expect – how naive of me to think I was the only one who would be nervous! We began with a short meditation and by me playing various sounds and instruments for them, including; Tibetan singing bowls, a native drone flute, koshi chimes and a rain stick. I then asked the children to write down how these sounds made them feel and these were some of the replies we received:

“Calm, relieved, relaxed”, “freedom”, “stress free”, “magical”, “makes me get shivers”

To hear a child say that they felt ‘relieved’ from hearing these sounds in the first 10 minutes of a session was one of the most powerful and life-affirming experiences for me. The session followed where we all picked an instrument and improvised using inspiration from the environment around us. It was absolutely incredible to see such a difference in the children in just the first session, where they realised that there was no pressure to do anything in a certain way, and that they could simply relax and be their unique creative selves. I could tell during some of the activities that some of these children have never been given this type of freedom or creativity before. After just 4 sessions, we have seen some amazing transformations in some of the children, seeing how they have come out of their shells, developed their confidence and shared with us some of their worries about moving into secondary school.

One of the biggest challenges I have had to face within this project has been actually allowing myself to accept that it is now my reality! This has been my dream for a very long time, and to now be sat outside with a group of children, a variety of instruments and the freedom to create together felt like a shock to my system. I was definitely struggling with imposter syndrome at the start, which has now faded as I continue my practices (gratitude and self love affirmations, journaling, meditation, etc). This project has led me down a very deep inner child healing journey, and it has been difficult at times to now be faced with children who remind me of my own past self. It has brought up a lot of emotion in me, which I am grateful to have been able to work through in order to deliver these sessions for the benefit of the children.

This project has shown me the importance of allowing myself to have the freedom to create and play in my own time, in order to be able to give the children this same space. Had I not spent all this time nourishing my inner child’s creativity, I would still be stuck in old programmes and beliefs that are based in structure, getting things ‘perfect’ and everyone making things in the same ways. There are a lot of times where the freedom of the session has led us down a completely different route to my plans – but it has been exactly what the children needed on that specific day. I am blessed to be able to run these sessions alongside a music therapist who works on a client led basis every day and understands this way of working. Her guidance and support has been amazing during these sessions, carefully weaving in questions, ideas and activities that fit the flow of the group’s energies in the moment.

Music and nature are so vital for children’s health and wellbeing, which we can see very clearly from these sessions already. I am so excited and glad to see the increase in forest schools and community groups that encourage children to connect with, explore and learn in nature. Our children are struggling to cope in schools, because the system is broken, not them. Instead of jumping to labels and diagnosis’, we need to take a step back and see that their struggles are the consequence of a corrupt system that benefits from a population with mental health illnesses. I am so grateful to be able to deliver this much needed group for today’s children, and for my own inner child who desperately needed this when she was in school. I often find myself crying tears of gratitude on the way to these sessions, knowing that I am truly living my dream by helping others to experience the powerful healing energies of music and nature.

I envision and live in a world where communities support children to live freely to express their unique, creative selves in nature. Music is playing, people are dancing and we are deeply in tune and connected to the flow of Mother Earth. We are growing and sharing food, singing, playing and living in joy, peace and harmony. I hope you will join me in living this dream too!

Please visit Ace Music Therapy’s website and social media accounts to find out more about music therapy and the true power that music can have to transform lives.

Feel free to follow my own instagram @saskii_222 to see what I get up to as I also do sound healing and Angelic reiki sessions. You can also check out my final uni project to follow my journey of connecting to music and nature, and also dive into it yourself with the workshop at the end!

Saskia Gillespie 

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