The Guide – Sonia Dingwall, Certified Nature Therapy Guide
I am an Occupational Therapist specializing in Sensory Integration Therapy who has worked with children (from birth to adolescence) for the past 25 years. I have always been passionate about the healing and restorative aspects of being immersed in nature.
Encouraging my students and families to get outside, including suggestions for where to go in the local area, is part of my consultation with parents.
Throughout my career, I have seen a significant increase in anxiety and sensory issues in children. The sensory benefits of nature are highlighted, as many of my students have emotional dysregulation and sensory processing difficulties.
The Participants and the Setting
I recruited my friends to participate in my final nature walk for certification as a Certified Nature Therapy Guide. They are aware of my passion for being outside and have sought me out in the past for suggestions on where to find new trails and peaceful places.
They were eager to join me on our early morning walk. We met at O’Neil Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon (an Orange County, CA park at the base of the Saddleback Mountains). The O’Neil family donated 278 acres of their ranch to the county of Orange in 1948, which eventually grew to nearly 4,000 acres (from other purchases and dedications).
The park is a wildlife refuge that includes a campground and a seasonal stream. Coast live oaks, a forest of western sycamores, and beautiful wildflowers are in abundance. There is a vista point of 1,492 feet with views of the Pacific Ocean, including Santa Catalina Island, and 19 hiking trails that create ample opportunities for exploration.
This park is a very special park to me personally, as I have brought my children here to climb rocks. play, and splash in the creek bed. We camped here frequently as a family, creating happy memories. I led a group of teens on an overnight hike to the top of the Saddleback Mountain to watch the sunrise and share breakfast.
We began the hike at the Edna Spaulding trail. I went over safety concerns, outlined the schedule for the nature walk, described the theme of sights and sounds of spring, and explained the purpose of the walk. My goals for the participants were for them to feel rebirth and renewal in immersing the senses fully during their morning walk and guided activities.
The hike was moderate and had a section of climbing.
However, the planned stop at the top with grand vistas of the surrounding peaks and the ocean views was very rewarding. This stop came at a perfect time to catch our breath and gaze at the beauty around us. The guided activity was a spiritual exercise of gratitude and reflection.
Finding Reflections of God in the Greatest Heights and the Smallest Things
I asked the participants to pick an attribute of God and how that attribute was represented in nature. One participant mentioned the variety of wildflowers we observed, including mariposa lily, thistle, monkeyflower, sunflower, prickly pear cactus, lupine, buttercups, fiddlenecks, aster and buckwheat. We had used the inaturalist app to identify the flowers and learn more about their genus, description of the flower, uses, and when it blooms. She felt that the wide variety of wildflowers and their unique design reminded her that God is a God of detail in His creation. This reminded her that she is uniquely made and has a specific purpose on this earth.
My other friend saw the mountain peaks as a symbol of strength and majesty. God is powerful enough to overcome the challenges and trials in our lives. She found comfort in this symbol as she recently had health concerns that were causing great anxiety. She had just received news that the biopsy results revealed no cancer. Being cancer free gave her a sense of gratitude and deep joy. She felt a new sense of strength as she gazed at the tall peaks overlooking the canyon below.
We continued our walk and had another planned stop to close our eyes and listen for several minutes. The participants were encouraged to shut off their mind and notice all the sounds of spring. We then talked about what we heard and how this felt. They heard birds, the rustling leaves, and the blades of grass moving in the gentle breeze. I led them through some breathing exercises to encourage further relaxation and stillness.
We ended the nature walk sitting by the stream where I led them through the final guided activity–a mountain earthing activity.
The activity involved removing their shoes, feeling the stream, feeling the soil and wet or dry sand, rubbing small stones between their hands and drawing a picture in the sand. One of the participants did not want to take off her shoes but did enjoy the feel of the rock in her hands. The other participant was content with sitting on the sand and feeling the warmth in her bare feet. Neither drew pictures in the sand, as they experienced challenges letting their inner child come out.
Experiences and Debriefing
Both participants reacted positively to the nature walk and were visibly more joyful and relaxed afterwards.
MS is a registered nurse and visits patients with chronic illnesses in their homes. She shared with me that she feels overwhelmed by the needs of her patients, especially with one patient who confided that she is depressed and starting to open up about her past. She loves to show her patient compassion, but feels like she is not qualified and feels burdened. She felt that she received so much from nature during the walk. Being poured into will help her with her practice.
NM felt so much relief from her cancer-free diagnosis and was grateful for the space and time to reflect and show gratitude for new life. Renewal and rebirth were the perfect theme for her in this stage of her life.
I am so grateful that I was able to lead this nature therapy walk! It was extremely rewarding and meaningful. I learned to be more confident in guiding the walk, was reminded of how individual needs and experiences can affect what they get out of it and learned to be flexible in what direction the walk takes. I feel that I excel in listening and sharing the joy I perceive in nature.
I am passionate about the benefits of being immersed fully in all the senses, being present, slowing down and experiencing childhood wonder. I learned that in the future I can make the experience even more meaningful by one addition. It would further engage the senses to end our walk with a ceremonial tea to celebrate the gifts we experienced together