Whether they’re seen as troubled or merely troublesome, children who disengage from family, communities and education often face a grim future.

These children have often suffered the trauma of abuse, neglect or family breakdown and even the most skilled teachers and therapists find it difficult to help them bounce back.

But researchers at Griffith University, in partnership with Logan City Council and non-profit organisations, YouthPlus, FSG (Freedom, Social Justice, Growth), Crowson Park Riding for the Disabled and local farmers, are exploring ways to help disengaged youth to build resilience and recognise their own potential using a formidable ally— Mother Nature.

Studies show that exposure to green spaces has a measurable benefit to mental health and work or play in a natural setting also improves physical health, says Professor Elizabeth Kendall, Farming 4 Care Project Leader.

Farming 4 Care is a Griffith project funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and based on a 300-acre property known as Woodstock at the base of Mount Tamborine.

It is aimed at 13 to 17 year-olds who are least likely to benefit from traditional interventions.

“These are children who are disconnected from family, social networks and the education system,” Professor Kendall explains.

“They’re often in foster care or even homeless, sleeping rough and some haven’t seen a classroom since primary school.

“Many have moved around a lot, been unable to establish strong social connections and are considered at risk for mental illness.”

Evidence shows that children in these situations are unlikely to respond to clinical therapy, or even engage in the first place. While we know what doesn’t work, the Farming 4 Care team is aiming to identify what does work and which aspects of nature have the biggest benefits in the long term.

“These children have an inherent distrust of adults and systems, so bringing them into windowless therapy rooms doesn’t do much good, no matter how friendly or skilled the therapist may be,” says Professor Kendall.

The Farming 4 Care project allows participants to either passively or actively engage with the natural environment by working on a conservation project or training farm animals. The young people get to enjoy the environment in the company of their peers and Griffith University students who act as role models.

Although far removed from the conventional classroom, Farming 4 Care is an educational program that allows children to learn horse training, farm practices and environmental research.

There’s a strong social benefit to the program, with students learning communication skills, the value of teamwork and how to trust.

The Farming 4 Care study involves researchers from Griffith University Schools of Human Services and Social Work, Psychology, Criminology, Urban Planning, Environmental Health, and Medicine.

“The Griffith students who come out to help with environmental studies also act as role models— they’re smart, friendly, nicely dressed and they’re pursuing a university education, so that’s had a big impact on the kids too.”

Professor Kendall says children who previously had no vision for education and career have discovered a passion for learning and the ability to envision a brighter future.

The project will provide invaluable information for schools, social service agencies and even local councils who may see the value of improving access to green spaces in urban areas.

“We’re trying to find out how we can better engage these kids through a rural setting rather than waiting until we see them later in hospital or jail,” she says.