Using archaeology to boost wellbeing


Historic England has launched a pilot programme that aims to use archaeology to improve young people’s wellbeing. The public body, which helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England’s historic environment, says that its Rejuvenate programme is the first of its kind for young people, enabling them to step into inspiring historic places to benefit their physical and mental wellbeing. It is based on an existing programme that helps injured service personnel. Activities range from archaeological digs and using flint tools to building prehistoric structures and learning how to survive outdoors. This fascinating project encapsulates two ideas that underpin Life-Based Learning thinking: participation (that getting involved and doing something is a good thing and is itself beneficial to mental health) and empowerment (developing social and leadership skills by enabling young people themselves to be at the heart of decision-making).

Rejuvenate aims to promote the wellbeing of young people who are facing challenges, including lack of engagement in school and reduced attendance. Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, says that the project “is all about taking inspiration from history and prehistory to learn new skills, get active and build friendships focused on a common task away from the classroom”.

The project is inspired by Operation Nightingale, a programme that has been running since 2019 using archaeology as a tool to help injured service personnel. The aim is to see if a similar approach can have an equally positive impact on students’ wellbeing.

Rejuvenate includes activities such as:

  • working with environmental archaeologists to forage in the landscape for prehistoric materials, making natural dyes and inks, and learning how to survive outdoors by building fires and structures
  • taking part in an archaeological dig – mapping and sketching the landscape, preparing and digging ‘test pits’, cleaning and recording finds, and exploring what this reveals about the landscape and how people lived thousands of years ago

We know the positive impact spending time outdoors can have on our mood and sense of wellbeing. This heritage and landscape inspired project is all about exploring the potential of archaeology to have a positive impact of young people’s sense of self, wellbeing and confidence. Working with our partners including Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, we are creating moments of reflection, connection and creativity through sharing new experiences and trying new skills.

Leigh Chalmers, heritage inclusion manager at Wessex Archaeology, quoted in the Historic England press launch

Life-Based Learning and mental wellbeing

We have written before that it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to use words like ‘crisis’ and ‘meltdown’ in the context of children and young people’s mental health. Recent data shows that the number of children needing treatment for serious mental health problems in England has risen by 39% in a year to more than 1.1 million.

We need well-funded support systems – turning politicians’ fine words about taking mental health as seriously as we do physical health – into something real and accessible. But we need to be proactive as well as reactive. Life-Based Learning (LBL) offers an approach to looking after our children and young people that not only addresses acute and immediate problems but also puts in place a bold strategy to promote future wellbeing.

LBL advocates teaching children from an early age about their emotions and how to manage them, much improving their chances of growing up happy, comfortable in themselves and emotionally resilient. They also need to have free and regular access to activities – like the Rejuvenate programme – that promote good mental health. Our blogs regularly highlight the benefits to children’s mental health and wellbeing of regular physical exercise, outdoor and nature-based experiences and participation in activities that involve them in positive change.

For example, in our blog Getting involved with nature is a great way to deal with eco-anxiety we highlighted the growing popularity of ‘green social prescribing’, an approach that involves individuals and, increasingly, health and community services using nature to boost mental wellbeing.

And in blogs like Immersing children in nature from a young age is a massive win-win we promote the twin benefits — to education and to health — of putting nature at the very heart of children’s lives, regardless of whether they live in the middle of the countryside or the middle of a city.

The image at the head of this article is taken from Historic England’s Facebook page and is being used to promote the Rejuvenate programme.

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