‘Edges of Potential’ – Wellbeing work with young people at Huxhams Cross Farm

‘Don’t struggle.  When your welly is deep in mud just trust the process. 

Calmly lift your leg and move on’

(9 year old wisdom at Huxhams Cross Farm)

By Mark O’Connell – Process Oriented Child Psychotherapist, and Manager of the Apricot Centre Wellbeing Service

Why ‘Edge of Potential’?  To reframe the idea that there is something wrong at the ‘edges’ children’s experience where they may not fit into what is considered ‘normal’. Maybe instead we can get interested in these edgey experiences, learn to recycle them and discover the potential within disturbance and difficulty. Underpinned by theories from Process Oriented Psychology (Dr Arnold Mindell), that if we learn to follow feedback it will lead the way, the Apricot Centre Wellbeing Service seeks to discover richness and diversity at the edges of systems, families, and young persons’ personal experience. These ideas are consistent with connected ideas in systems thinking, ecology and permaculture.

At the same time as the Huxhams Cross (almost ‘Biodynamic’) Farm is becoming more productive and is bearing fruits and vegetables, so too the Wellbeing Project for Children and Families is also beginning to flower, and finding its new home in the Apricot Centre for Wellbeing (built by Terra Perma) and the Sensory Pod (built by local craftsperson Rowan Stickland).

In the last few months we have begun to mentor young people both on the farm site and within the Torbay area. We worked for 6 weeks with a pre-teen unable to attend school, and have begun to support teenagers and their families with a developing therapeutic mentoring team. There are big opportunities to offer support services where there is a risk of breakdown and the escalating input of high-cost for families in complex life situations. The therapeutic mentoring team is a creative and diverse group of experienced people skilled to engage sensitively, tune-ing in to the needs and potential of young people. The farm provides unique nature-based spaces and experiences conducive to wellbeing where young people can explore themselves, their relationships, their personal ‘edges’ within boundaries both natural and from the ‘system’ (Apricot). There are many special places to play, explore, wallow in mud and water, create, dance, or hide away.

The ‘Sensory Wonderland area, as it is now called, is away from the public footpath where a wild bit of woodland with winding paths, a brook, and a damned up brook, border with an orchard planted with Apricots, Cherries, Plums, Apples, Greengages, and Medlars. On Open Farm Sunday (10th of June) we walked through this area and adults and young people ‘wallowed’ barefoot in the mud together.

Just recently the ‘Sensory Pod’ was brought to the edge of Sensory Wonderland. A beautiful wooden construction with steam-bent wooden ribs and insulated timber frame on a caravan base. Inspired by features in insects, Rowan Stickland has built-in features such as round concave windows, and antennae-like light stalks outside the front door. Inside the pod the acoustics are ambient and it is a quiet space where young people can come and relax, be creative, craft-making and exploring creative ideas in many areas of media. This area offers diverse sensory opportunities for kids who may have sensory deficits or overload, for children who are hyper-aroused maybe through trauma, and where there are challenges to learning due to the child’s developmental difficulties (or just that their ‘potential’ lies in less mainstream directions). Mentors and therapists will work from this area in various combinations.

One further exciting development is the Sensory Basket Swing which is gradually being funded and built out of a metalwork frame and woven willow. This swing will hang from the adjacent oak tree and will be large enough for a young person to lie within, ‘swing-low’ and slow, with benefits to the vestibular system.

The ‘Egg’ was another small building which was used as a place of ‘incubation’ for a young person on site. It was called the Egg when she became distressed after inadvertently dropped some chicken eggs she was trying to care for, and this became a central theme to explore. She also found a special place along the brook which she came to call the ‘Place of Perfect Peace’ which she said she would go to whenever she was upset. How powerful these places in nature can become to us when we develop a relationship with them. Maybe young people can also connect with such special places in nature in their minds at stressful times. I know that connecting to a special place in nature where i feel at home is an important practice of my own, and I am a 55 year old young person!

Recently on May 25th 2018 we collaborated with Global Synapses at Foxhole on the Dartington Estate delivering a Deep Democracy Open Forum on mental health. Philip Franses of GS invited us to explore ways of bringing practical action around themes such as the well-being of young people in Devon. This inspired an Open Forum. A group of facilitators experienced in working with Deep Democracy Open Forums (Dr Arnold Mindell) came together with Sara Downham-Lotto and young artists from of Arts Lab (Dartington). These young artists played an important part throughout the day with their voices, presence, creativity and projects embroidered into the forum. Also attending were YOT and youth workers, local authority managers, a representative of the Torbay Youth Trust, mentors and therapists from the Apricot Centre team, healers, locals, social workers, artists and more… I think there were just under 40 attending.

In a nutshell Deep Democracy Open Forum work makes a space for a community to interact around and process themes which are ‘edgey’ and hot to handle! Often this starts with something like a role-play, with key roles which may be in tension or conflict, and then these roles take on a life of their own. Participants are invited to speak from the different roles, to deepen the roles and the interactions, sometimes t becoming role-fluid, going from one side of a conflict then finding and helping to unfold the other side. Also the land or the sentient/essence level at the core of the community can play an important part in the process. In the community forum on well-being we explored the relationship between the role of the expert/authority and the grassroot families and young people suffering with painful experiences. The position of the expert was ‘frozen’ with regulations and rules, while the role of the ‘youth’ was feeling unheard and unrelated to. Eventually the role of the youth went to one side and then came back with an empowered position challenging the role of the expert to be more related. The idea of open forum work is that it can help communities to deepen and change at many levels.

The Apricot Centre Wellbeing Service in East Anglia is a team of 13 professionals offering a wide range of support to children and young people in the South East of England. At this time, alongside a team of 8 or so therapeutic mentors, we are now building the new therapeutic team in Devon. This will consist of; a Child Psychotherapist, a Music Therapist (and Occupational Therapist), Family Systems Therapists, and likely to include a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, a Child Psychologist, Play Therapists and an Art Psychotherapist.  This team will reflect and supervise together, learning from and supporting one another, while providing therapeutic services for children, young people and families in Torbay and South Devon.

The overall business model of the Apricot Centre finds potential at it’s own edges. Both internally through a rich seam where the farming and food production overlap with a wide range of wellbeing services, and at the same time externally interacting and collaborating with other services and systems within the Voluntary and Public Sectors, the grassroots folks in local communities, and the business sector.

Mark O’Connell

Creatively supporting young people and families within their communities and environment

​wellbeing at apricotcentre.co.uk​ (to manager and administrator)



CQC registration no: CRT1-2170725307

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