For kids, the natural world can be a place of peace, health and inspiration—and can launch a lifetime passion for conservation.
- Richard Louv
- Sep 23, 2020
Wonder, delight, whimsy and discovery animate the faces of children exploring nature, whether by building a fairy house (top left) or rescuing a turtle from the road (bottom right). Even inspecting a few wildflowers (below) can yield quiet joy. (Above photos clockwise from top left: Leslie Alvis, The Jehoul Family, Mackenzie Rohrbaugh/Wild Sage Photo Co., Nichole Holze, Nakiesha D. Bridgers, Nakiesha D. Bridgers, Nakiesha D. Bridgers, Elizabeth Blank)
ON A WARM SUMMER AFTERNOON in Atascadero, California, Kathleen Lockyer and her seven-year-old daughter were in their backyard next to the Salinas River. The child was pounding an acorn with a stone when she suddenly looked up, seeming alarmed.
“Mama! What’s he saying?” she asked.
Lockyer’s stomach fluttered. Was someone watching them? Was her daughter hearing imaginary voices?
“Who are you hearing?" asked Lockyer, feeling uneasy.
“Him, that guy. Listen!” her daughter said. Baffled at her mom’s cluelessness, the little girl stood up and pointed toward the front yard. “That bird. So what’s he saying???”
Lockyer turned and heard the sharp metronomelike cheep-cheep-cheep alarm call of a bird. Her daughter, hearing it first, had been intuitively captivated—and curious. This backyard moment underscored what Lockyer, an occupational therapist, already knew: Connection to nature can be a doorway into a wider, deeper and even healing world—if we pay attention.
Increasingly, psychologists, health professionals, urban planners and others are, in fact, paying attention and incorporating the power of nature into their practices. Washington, D.C.-based pediatrician Robert Zarr, for example, founded Park Rx America, now a network of some 820 healthcare professionals from around the world who literally write prescriptions for nature. They’ll tell patients to “plant a garden,” “take a hike” or unplug from electronics and just “notice what’s in motion” outside. They’ve even created a database of parks or trails for outdoor opportunities in patients’ own neighborhoods.
Similarly, pediatrician Stephen Pont in Austin, Texas, prescribes nature as a “stealth health” intervention. In nature, children “can engage in health-improving activities without even realizing it,” he says. “Give kids a healthy snack and time outdoors in nature and many medical problems can be prevented or improved.” These problems range from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder to Vitamin D deficiency to cardiovascular and mood disorders. And though nature isn’t a panacea for everything that ails us, it’s one of the few prescriptions that act as both prevention and therapy.
As founding chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Section on Obesity, Pont is now encouraging AAP to establish a Nature and Child Health group for pediatricians interested in “increasing the amount of time that our patients spend in nature.” He bases this advice on common sense and hard science. “A growing evidence base is now documenting ... what we’ve always known—that we feel better after spending time in nature,” he says.
Not long ago, it wasn’t easy to support the argument that the natural world can enhance physical, mental and social health and improve cognitive skills. In the early 2000s, when I was researching and writing Last Child in the Woods—a book about the benefits of nature and the problems with what I called nature-deficit disorder—I found only about 60 studies rigorous enough to cite. Then, in 2006, I co-founded the nonprofit Children & Nature Network, which now offers a free online research library with abstracts of more than 1,000 studies.
Ming Kuo was one of the early pioneers in the field. “When I got into this, it was just me and the tumbleweeds,” says Kuo, who heads the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Today, she says, “there’s been a noticeable uptick, maybe even a flood of research.”
Nature proves its point
This growing number of studies suggests that nature connection can ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, help prevent or reduce obesity and myopia and boost the immune system—and those health benefits can lead to improved learning. Critical thinking and creativity are shaped not only by pedagogy but by health as well as environmental, economic and cultural conditions. For children and adults, connecting with the natural world can expand the senses, most importantly the sense of wonder.
In February 2019, Kuo and her colleagues, Michael Barnes and Catherine Jordan at the University of Minnesota, published a systematic review of nature-related education research in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. They conclude that greener schools—ones that, for example, offer a natural space for play and learning, take students on field trips to natural areas and bring nature into the classroom—reduce stress, boost cognitive functioning and may raise standardized test scores and graduation rates. “Report after report—from independent observers as well as participants themselves—indicate shifts in perseverance, problem solving, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork and resilience,” they write. Among the most recent findings:
• A 2019 study published in Health & Place found that time outdoors increases kids’ chances of experiencing moments of happiness. This study, involving more than 10,000 children using body-worn sensors, suggested that the odds of experiencing what the researchers called “happy moments” were 2.4 times larger in public spaces such as open fields and plazas than in commercial areas like malls.
• Another 2019 study in the same journal found that park prescriptions for low-income families lead to a significant increase in “resilience,” a balanced response to stress.
• And researchers have found that for young adults, the more nature experienced over a 14-day period, the more life satisfaction they felt daily. In short, time in nature heals.
Such research has fueled a powerful movement to connect children, families and communities to nature for both health and learning. Though barriers remain, parents, health care professionals and educators are increasingly aware of the benefits—and taking action.
In the 1990s, for example, many school districts were cutting recess and favoring longer hours of desk-based learning and test taking. But in 2017, Education Week reported the creation of hundreds of new nature-based preschools within the decade. School gardens and natural schoolyards—such as those fostered through the National Wildlife Federation’s Schoolyard Habitats® program—are also gaining ground. And the threat of the coronavirus pandemic added incentive to create learning areas outdoors, where social distancing is easier than in classrooms.
Building equal access for all
The health and social benefits of nearby nature also have clear implications for conservation and the future of urban development. More than 50 studies point to nature-based play as key to developing pro-environmental behavior because it nurtures an emotional connection to the natural world. Research also suggests that healthy urban ecosystems can lead to more cohesive neighborhoods, reduced aggression, lower crime, better social bonding and less violence.
That raises the very real question of equitable access to nature for all people. While the human need for nature connection is universal, equal access to nature is not. According to a new report released by the Center for American Progress based on an analysis from Conservation Science Partners, “people of color and low-income communities are more susceptible to developing immunocompromising illnesses such as asthma” because “they are more likely to live in polluted areas without sufficient tree cover and spaces to get outdoors.”
The pandemic has underscored these problems. “Far from being an ‘equalizer,’ the pandemic has been an amplifier and magnifier of societal inequities,” says José González, founder of Latino Outdoors. Decisions to close or restrict access to parks, he adds, “will have a disproportionate toll on the communities that need it the most.” In addition, too many parks, from the local to the national, are, as Gonzalez puts it, perceived as “privileged spaces,” where people of color “may not feel welcome or safe.”
This matters all the more because the health and educational benefits of natural environments appear to be particularly evident among children and communities under the most stress. In 2018, U.K. researchers Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett and Andy Peter Jones published a review of studies involving more than 290 million people of all ages from 20 different countries. Their analysis revealed that exposure to green space was linked to significant reductions in diastolic blood pressure, stress-related salivary cortisol, heart rate and diabetes. In addition, their survey indicated that green space exposure reduces the risk of preterm birth, premature death and high blood pressure—all of which disproportionately affect people of color.
While acknowledging the immense variability in access to safe outdoor spaces, it’s worth asking: How much of a dose of nature do we humans need? One 2019 study, published in Scientific Reports, found that a minimum of 120 minutes a week in parks, woodlands or beaches promotes physical and mental health. This two-hour threshold applied across genders, ages, ethnicities and economics—and also for people with long-term illnesses or disabilities. Ultimately, I’d argue the most useful dose is this: Some is better than none, and more is better than some.
Discovering our wild side
Moving beyond nature’s impact on health, researchers are beginning to study the relationship between humans and other animals. As I note in my recent book, Our Wild Calling, little is known about the impact of wild animals on human health or how, through a stronger bond, humans can prevent further destruction of wildlife.
This is the frontier that Lockyer and others are beginning to explore. For more than two decades, she has been helping kids with sensory processing disorder, in which the brain has difficulty processing information that comes in through the senses. Through her practice Rx Outside, Lockyer has come to believe that bird language illustrates how complicated the human auditory processing system is.
“Bird language may have been the first [other than human] auditory language that our ancestors tuned into,” she says. “Listening to the many vocalizations birds use to describe different things happening in the environment may have helped our ancestors develop their own auditory processing capabilities, which they needed for survival.”
Lockyer also works with a group called 8 Shields, taking people into Northern California forests to learn “deep bird language,” listening to their vocalizations. Participants adopt a “sit spot” where they remain still long enough to truly listen to the sounds of nature—and to themselves.
The bird that Lockyer’s daughter heard turned out to be a California towhee agitated by a gray squirrel that crept close to its nest. By asking what “that guy” was saying, the girl was acknowledging a disturbance, possibly a nearby threat. In the past, such information might have been critical to physical safety, says Lockyer. Today, this form of alertness can help develop our neurological foundations and enhance our sense of being fully alive by making us more aware of our surroundings. “If a sound is not attached to sight or smell or given meaning, it never makes neurological sense,” she says. “We are designed to make sense of our world.”
This truth can be applied to how we raise our children and care for the Earth. It’s also the core principle of all good research. “Developmentally,” Lockyer says, “the best response to a child who hears the alarm of a bird and asks, ‘What’s he saying?’ is, ‘I don’t know, let’s go find out!’”
NWF at Work
Connecting kids with nature
Give a kid a chance to explore outdoors—and you’ll see that child blossom. The National Wildlife Federation encourages such nature learning through its 9,000 certified Schoolyard Habitats® and 5,500 Eco-Schools USA, serving well over a million kids in the nation’s 25 largest school districts and beyond—by far the largest green-school programming in the United States. The Federation’s Ranger Rick® kids’ magazines, books and online programming teach kids about nature and show how they can make a difference in their own environment. NWF’s Garden for Wildlife™ programs teach young Butterfly Heroes™ how to help monarchs and other pollinators. And the Early Childhood Health Outdoors™ program is creating natural playscapes where kids can both learn and have fun—all gifts to future generations.
Richard Louv has authored several books about nature. His newest is Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives—and Save Theirs.
Take a Walk in the Woods. Doctor’s Orders.
(THE NEW YORK TIMES, July 12, 2018)
“Forest bathing,” or immersing yourself in nature, is being embraced by doctors and others as a way to combat stress and improve health.
By Amitha Kalaichandran, M.D.
First we sat in a circle on the leafy ground, each sharing a moment in nature from our childhood that filled us with joy. Next our guide, Kiki, a newly trained forest therapist who insisted we call her by her first name, led us on a mindful — and very slow — walk through the forest.
“What do you hear, smell, see?” Kiki asked, encouraging us to use all five senses to become deeply “immersed” in the experience.
An older woman in the group told us that she was undergoing a difficult and stressful period in her life, and that being among the trees felt “healing.” Others mentioned that the activity reminded them of walks they took as part of Boy Scouts or commented on the sounds: insects, birds, the rustling of leaves. I noticed the bright green acorns that dotted the forest floor, which reminded me of my childhood collection of acorns and chestnuts. Admittedly, I was also worried that the early morning rain was fertile ground for vicious mosquitoes (West Nile!) and ticks (Lyme!).
We ended the two-hour forest walk with a tea ceremony, sipping a concoction of white pine needles steeped in hot water.I left feeling relaxed and more at peace, though with at least two dozen bites from mosquitoes that seemed immune to DEET.
Kiki had been trained according to standards set by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, a professional group that has certified more than 300 people across North America to be forest therapy guides, among them psychotherapists, nurses and six M.D.s. The sessions are modeled after the Japanese tradition of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing.
Over the years, I’ve had physician mentors recommend Richard Louv’s books, “The Nature Principle” and “Last Child in the Woods,” which describe the benefits of time spent in the wilderness, from stimulating creativity to reducing stress. Florence Williams’s best-selling book, “The Nature Fix,” has a chapter dedicated to the benefits of forest therapy.And now, it appears that more North American doctors are starting to incorporate spending time in forests into their practice.
Some small studies, many conducted in Japan and Korea, suggest that spending time in nature, specifically in lush forests, might decrease stress and blood pressure (especially in middle-aged men), improve heart-rate variability and lower cortisol levels while boosting one’s mood. An analysis of studies from 2010 that focused on exercising in nature found improvements in self-esteem, particularly among younger participants. Overall effects on mood were heightened when there was a stream or other body of water nearby.
But other studies have shown mixed results. A cross-sectional study from Korea found no change in blood pressure with forest bathing, and a systematic review from 2010 found that while time in the forest may boost mood and energy, any effects on attention, blood pressure and cortisol may not be statistically significant. Another recent review from Australia underscored the challenges of drawing causal links to disease prevention, with the authors calling for robust randomized controlled trials.
Several theories have been proposed as to why spending time in forests might provide health benefits.Some have suggested that chemicals emitted from trees, so-called phytoncides, have a physiological effect on our stress levels. Others suggest that forest sounds — birds chirping, rustling leaves — have a physiologically calming effect. Yet evidence to support these theories is limited.
On a recent visit to Japan, I met with Dr. Hiroko Ochiai, a surgeon based at Tokyo Medical Center, and her husband, Toshiya Ochiai, who is currently the chief executive of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine. Dr. Ochiai is trained in forest therapy and currently conducts most of her sessions with volunteers within a forest in Nagano, about three hours from Tokyo, with the help of a local guide, and plans to offer forest therapy soon at one of Tokyo’s largest hospitals.
“I usually encourage participants to sit or lie down on the forest ground and listen to the sounds,” she says. “The hypersonic natural world can be soothing, and things are always moving even while we are still. It can be very calming.”
Last June the Northside Hospital Cancer Institute in Atlanta began to formally offer forest therapy as part of a pilot project in collaboration with the Chattahoochee Nature Center. Twelve patients with newly diagnosed cancers recently signed up for a session, according to Christy Andrews, the executive director of Cancer Support Community Atlanta.
“It was a four-hour session that seemed to have an impact on the patients,” she said. “I remember one participant telling me afterward that it was a way to ‘steer away from cancer,’ and the group became very cohesive. I think it helped reduce the isolation in a way that’s different from a regular support group.”
Dr. Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, an obstetrician-gynecologist based in Cedar Falls, Iowa, began guiding patients in her practice through the Prairie Woods in Hiawatha Iowa, though she has also led groups in forests around Des Moines. She became a certified guide through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy three years ago and tries to tailor her offerings based on the group she is leading.
“I generally get a sense of where people are at. For some, it’s best for me to stick to the science, but others may literally want to hug a tree. The traditional tea ceremony at the end might turn some people off, so I’m conscious of that and adjust accordingly,” she says.
In one exercise, she has participants close their eyes as she guides them through experiencing the different senses, imagining feeling their feet growing into the ground like roots of a tree, for instance, listening to nearby sounds and observing how far they may extend, or smelling the air. It’s similar in many ways to a guided meditation.
“I recently held a session where four out of the 20 participants were in wheelchairs, so I found a local park that had plenty of trees and a paved sidewalk so everyone could enjoy it,” she says.
At the University of California, San Francisco, Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Dr. Nooshin Razani, a pediatric infectious disease doctor and director of the Center for Nature and Health, has offered a similar program for the past four years. The “Shine” program, linked to the East Bay Regional Parks District, offers “ park prescriptions,” a movement that is growing in popularity, and aims to improve accessibility to nature for low income children.
One Saturday a month, Dr. Razani leads a group of up to 50 people through a lush forest of redwood trees and lakes on the outskirts of Oakland. The groups consist of patients ranging in age from a few months to 18 years, accompanied by at least one adult family member. A few of her medical colleagues — an orthopedic surgeon and primary care doctor — have also attended, and the Oakland-based pediatrics residency program at the medical centers invites doctors in training to join the group. Shine recently celebrated its 60th park outing.
“The accessibility part is huge for me. Many children don’t have access to green spaces in their community,” Dr. Razani says. “We also have evidence that supports the mental health aspects of spending time in forests, and for the resident doctors who participate, it’s a way to show them how children interact with nature based on the developmental stage. Sometimes the doctors’ need is just as much as the patients’.” In February, Dr. Razani published findings of a randomized trial that found that park visits — regardless of whether they were led by a guide or not — were associated with a decrease in stress three months after the visits.
A few hours after my own forest walk, the woman in our group who had mentioned her stress emailed me to say that she had checked her blood pressure afterward and noticed it was lower than usual. “It would be nice to see if there was a meaningful change from before, if they collected that information,” she wrote.
She had hit on one of the biggest issues around guided forest walks and forest therapy. Is it an evidence-based activity with proven clinical benefits?
The science is still lacking to prove it.But there is some evidence — as well as good old common sense — to suggest that spending time in nature is good for both the mind and body, whether done as a group or alone. It may be something we all need more of.
Amitha Kalaichandran, M.H.S., M.D., (@DrAmithaK) is a resident physician in pediatrics based in Ottawa, Canada.
“One day when you wake up, you will find that you have become a forest. You have grown roots and found strength in them that no one thought you had. You have become stronger and more beautiful, full of life giving qualities. You have learned to take all the negativity around you and turn it into oxygen for easy breathing. A host of wild creatures live inside you and you call them stories. A variety of beautiful birds rest inside your mind and you call them memories. You have become an incredible self sustaining thing of epic proportions. And you should be so proud of yourself, of how far you have come from the seeds of who you used to be.”
– Nikita Gill, You Have Become a Forest
In Quiet Places, We Face the Questions That Can Make or Unmake Us
November 14, 2017
When I first read David Whyte’s poem “Sometimes” in all its beautiful simplicity, I realized that it describes an experience I’ve had from time to time walking in the woods.
by David Whyte
if you move carefully
through the forest,
like the ones
in the old stories,
who could cross
a shimmering bed of leaves
without a sound,
you come to a place
whose only task
is to trouble you …
(Excerpted from Everything Is Waiting for You. Read the full poem here.)
Sometimes, as I rest in nature’s beauty, all my urgent questions go away — a lovely experience, but one that provides only temporary relief.
At other times, as the poem says, I come to a place where my questions come back — questions about how I am living my life, questions I ignore at my peril.
I mean questions like these: Why do you stay “hooked” on concerns that would disappear in an instant if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? Knowing that you will “die tomorrow” — whether tomorrow is 24 hours or 20 years from now — why don’t you shake off those worries and embrace whatever brings new life to you and the people around you?
I don’t know what your questions are. But maybe as you read this poem — or get out into a quiet place where nature can do its work on you — you’ll be able to name and ponder one or two of those questions that, as the poet says, “can make or unmake a life.”
That’s what I’m doing even as I write this!
Parker J. Palmer was a columnist for On Being from 2014 to 2018. He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder and senior partner emeritus of the Center for Courage & Renewal; his latest project is The Growing Edge. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His latest book is On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old.
Why living around nature could make you live longer
(The Washington Post, April 19, 2016)
This photo taken on October 18, 2008 shows the sun peeking through a canopy of trees on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah Park, Virginia. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Living closer to nature is better for your health, new research suggests — and may even extend your life.
A study just published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that people who live in “greener” areas, with more vegetation around, have a lower risk of mortality. The health benefits are likely thanks to factors such as improved mental health, social engagement and physical activity that come with living near green spaces.
The research relied on data from a vast long-term Harvard study funded by the National Institutes of Health called the Nurses’ Health Study, which has collected health information biennially on more than 100,000 female registered nurses in the U.S. since 1976. The new paper analyzed participant data from between 2000 and 2008, taking note of any deaths that occurred and their causes. At the same time, the researchers used satellite data to assess the amount of green vegetation surrounding each participant’s home during the study period.
[How Earth itself has upped the stakes for the Paris climate accord]
The researchers found that people living in the greenest places — that is, people who had the most vegetation within 800 feet of their homes — had a 12 percent lower rate of mortality from any non-accidental cause than people living in the least green places. Specifically, they found that the relationship was strongest for deaths related to respiratory disease, cancer and kidney disease. These results were the same regardless of the participants’ income, weight or smoking status and also did not significantly change between urban and suburban locations.
In statistical analyses, though, the researchers found that participants’ mental health, social engagement, level of physical activity and exposure to air pollution likely explained how the green spaces were making a difference.
This is all in line with the ways previous research has suggested greenness can affect health. Places with more vegetation are generally thought to be less polluted, and the presence of vegetation, itself, can help keep air cleaner. And green spaces like parks can help encourage people to get outside, exercise and engage with other people — all factors that can improve overall health. The effects on mental health may be somewhat less straightforward, but nonetheless important, as this study suggested.
“We were really surprised to find that the mental health pathway explained about 30 percent of the relationship between greenness and mortality,” said Peter James, the study’s lead author and a research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
There are several theories about how nature affects mental health, said Howard Frumkin, dean of the school of public health at the University of Washington, who was not involved with the new study. One of them is known as the “biophilia” hypothesis, which was proposed by renowned biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson. This theory embodies the idea “that we evolved as a species embedded in nature over most of our existence as a species, and something about that nature contact still resonates with us,” Frumkin said. “Something about contact with nature is soothing and restorative and thereby good for mental health.”
It may also be that the social engagement that green spaces encourage can improve people’s mindsets as well. “Social connectedness is a predictor of good mental health, which is in turn a predictor of good physical health,” Frumkin said.
Still, much remains uncertain about the exact mechanisms by which exposure to nature can improve health, Frumkin noted. And scientists are still trying to figure out what type of contact with nature works best.
“Is a it a view out the window or do you need to get out and walk among the trees?” Frumkin said. “Does a bush do the trick or do you need a tree? Does it need to be in leaf during the summer, or does it work during the winter when it’s lost its leaves? There are lots of questions about the mechanisms and specifically about what form of nature contact offers benefit.”
James and his team hope to continue exploring the finer details in future research. They’re interested in looking more closely at some of the specific causes of mortality revealed in this study, especially cancer, in order to examine not just how greenness is connected to deaths but to the overall incidence of disease.
“We also do want to explore this with other cohorts,” James added. While he and his team controlled for demographic factors in this study, it’s still worth pointing out that most of the participants were white, and since they were all registered nurses, the socioeconomic range within the group was somewhat narrow.
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James added that, while this study focused on greenness around the participants’ residences, it’s worth noting that most people spend a great deal of their time away from the home. So a good idea for future research would be to focus on a broader set of the spaces people interact with on a daily basis.
The challenge with all these ideas for future studies is that research on the health effects of greenness is difficult to get funded, Frumkin said, pointing out that even this study was “a piggyback onto an existing study that’s being funded for other reasons.” He feels that if more resources were afforded to the understanding of human interactions with nature, the health benefits could be immense.
“If we had a medication that did this — a medication that prolonged life, that addressed very different unconnected causes of disease, that did it at no cost and with no side effects — that would be the best medication of the decade,” Frumkin said. “But we don’t have a medication like that except for this ‘vitamin N’ — nature.”
You must turn back to the simple things...to the forest.
There is the start.
You must go in quest of yourself, and you will find yourself again only in the simple and forgotten things.
Why not go into the forest for a time, literally?
Sometimes a tree tells you more than can be read in a book.
C. G. Jung Letters 8 Oct 1947
Kids do not spend nearly enough time outside. Here’s how (and why) to change that.
by Collin O'Mara
On Parenting Perspective
As the weather turns warmer and the days are longer, many parents are looking forward to spending more quality time with the family. A great place to start is by taking your kids outdoors — a lot. As the parent of a 6-year old and a 10-month-old, I think a lot about how our family can provide experiences that help them reach their potential. As the head of the National Wildlife Federation, I am also focused on where children spend their time, and how it impacts their lives.
Here is a sobering statistic: The average American child spends five to eight hours a day in front of a digital screen, ofte