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Our Say: No better time to be outside

22nd November 2016,     BY: CERES Education – Outreach Team


By Alex Hoffman

Outreach Educator

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts… There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Rachel Carson

It is not a new or original idea that connection to nature is a vital component of our human experience. Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and conservationist, authored the seminal book The Silent Spring in 1962. Her moving reflections of nature and the need to protect it were a valuable piece for the environmental movement. She was one of many poets, philosophers, artists and scientists over the centuries that have been moved by our natural world. Indeed intuition tells us that certain landscape experiences are beneficial to our sense of wellbeing and there is now an impressive body of science validating this sensibility. The natural world is good for our brains, bodies and mental health in a myriad of ways. The implications of this in an educational setting as well as for environmental conservation are invaluable.

While we may agree with this, the reality is that young people in Australia are spending less and less time outdoors. A research report conducted by Planet Ark examined the physical and mental health of Australian children in the context of diminished time in nature. According to the report, nearly a quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese. This in turn is linked to other physical health and social challenges. At the time of the 2012 report, 14% of Australian children had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Factors that contribute to less time in nature include urban density, with some property development being introduced at the expense of public green spaces, as well as trends in new housing towards larger indoor spaces where time-poor parents favor small or no garden. Additionally, our world has experienced an exponential rise in technology. This was once heralded as promising greater efficiency and more available time, yet we are busier than ever before and our “screen time” has increased dramatically. The report explains that, for children “time spent playing with gadgets can come at the expense of time spent interacting with family members, participating in creative play or playing outdoors”. Researchers also suggest increased television watching and sedentary lifestyles can increase materialism and consumerism among children and influence physical health.


It is well understood that outdoor activity is good for physical health. Many people are aware of the importance of exposure to sunshine to promote the body’s synthesis of vitamin D. Sunlight helps regulate the biological time clock and the regulation of our sleeping and awake states, in turn, helps regulate our moods. Time spent in nature also provides a diversity of sounds, sights, smells and textures, and a variety of plants, animals and landscapes that children can engage with. This mental and sensory stimulation is important in human developmental processes. They can challenge balance and coordination, and the unpredictability of the landscape provides mental stimulation. The outdoors is also frequently a space for sport and other activities that improve fitness and strength.

Time in nature also holds striking benefits for mental health. Studies have found that when people looked at scenes of natural beauty, such as coastlines or mountains, it fired up parts of the brain’s parrahippocampal gyrus, triggering the dopamine reward system, which brings on feelings of pleasure (Gordon, 2013). There are many “unseen” forces of nature that affect our physiology. These include aromas. As one breathes in a forest setting, we inhale phytoncides, a group of natural chemicals secreted by evergreens. As the chemicals enter our nasal passages and move through the bloodstream, they affect mental and physical states – a sort of “natural aromatherapy”(Gordon, 2013). There’s even electricity in the air; forests, waterfalls and other natural settings have an abundance of charged particles called negative ions, known to boost metabolism and blood flow, reduce stress by promoting serotonin production. A Japanese study revealed that after exercise in nature, blood flow and hemoglobin levels in the brain’s prefontal cortex were similar to that in a meditative state (Gordon, 2013). The result of these measurable changes is reduced stress.

This has important implications for an educational setting where we know stress can adversely affect learning. It can disrupt attention, interfere with cognitive skills and cause mental fatigue. Outdoor settings in general provide restoration from cognitive effort. In the natural environment, children aren’t subject to the sensory overload that bombards them at a shopping mall or even in a noisy, active classroom (Gordon, 2013). That means they expend less energy filtering out information they don’t need. Dr John Ratey, a professor at Harvard Medical school and a researcher on the link between exercise and the brain explains “when kids are fully engaged without even realising it, it’s efficient for their brains and good for mental health”.

Natural environments also provide rich learning contexts. From outdoor education through to the increased integration of sustainability into school curriculum and contexts, we can see education engaging with our natural world. Forest schools, originating from Norway, have boomed across the UK, Canada, New Zealand and, in recent years, Australia (known here as Bush Kindies). The key underlying feature of this forest preschool approach is that children spend long and regular periods of time in unstructured play in natural forest or beach environments. These experiences are promoted by a pedagogy that values and incorporates student-led and authentic learning experiences that are contextual, purposive and meaningful.

The benefits of forest preschool experiences for young children are now well-documented in a number of evaluative studies. In particular, reports from the UK cite diverse benefits such as increased confidence, motivation and concentration, increased social, physical and language skills, deeper conceptual skills and respect for the environment (Chancellor, B & Elliot, S. 2014). These reports reaffirm earlier research which identified that Scandinavian preschool children who spent more time outdoors and had access to woodlands demonstrated physical benefits and increased social and imaginative play (Fjortoft, 2001).

There are learning implications too for responsible citizenship and environmental conservation. Plenty of people who profess an interest in the environment and a sense of responsibility to look after it will tell stories of climbing trees, camping, exploring and playing in nature as children. Many trace their love for the planet back to these childhood experiences. If we are preparing children today for an uncertain future environmentally, we need to be nourishing this connection to nature outside the classroom walls. When children recognise themselves as being part of nature, not separate to it, they develop a sense of ecological self. The stronger the self-perception of being part of nature, the more likely a child is to protect it. This can be incorporated into school and community based environmental programs. Students can learn active and responsible citizenship through participating in regular and ongoing environmental monitoring, community engagement and campaigning, and the implementation of projects to affect positive change.

While this has only skimmed the surface of what natural environments have to offer, it is worth reflecting upon the depth of our relationship to the natural world, its meaning and value in our lives. Our physical and emotional wellbeing is significantly enhanced by our connection to nature. In fact, our physical survival is dependent on these very environments thriving. The educational benefits too of going outdoors into nature are innumerable, even if only briefly explored here, and have strong implications for the ongoing conservation of the natural world. Now Spring has arrived, it may well and truly be time to go outside! Let nature take care of the rest.

 

References:

Chancellor, B and Elliot, S. (2014) ‘From Forest School to Bush Kinder: an inspirational approach to preschool provision in Australia’
http://www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/our-publications/australasian-journal-early-childhood/index-abstracts/ajec-vol-39-no-4-december-2014/forest-preschool-bush-kinder-inspirational-approach-preschool-provision-australia-full-free-text-available/

Fjortofy, I. (2004). Landscape as playscape: The effects of natural environments on children’s play and motor development. Children, Youth and Environments 14(2) 21-44.

Gordon, Andrea. (2013). Forest Kids: Why the modern classroom is moving outdoors. Star Dispatches.

Kaplan, Stephen. (1995). The Restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framework.
http://willsull.net/resources/KaplanS1995.pdf

Kuo Ming, Frances. (2010) Parks and Other Green Environments: Essential Components of a Healthy Human Habitat.
http://www.nrpa.org/uploadedFiles/nrpa.org/Publications_and_Research/Research/Papers/MingKuo-Research-Paper.pdf

Dr John Ratey
http://www.johnratey.com/

Planet Ark. (2012)‘Planting Trees: Just What the Doctor Ordered’ Research Report.
http://treeday.planetark.org/documents/doc-812-planting-trees-report-2012-06-25-final.pdf