Nature & Wellness
What do you think of when the words “outdoors” and “nature” come to mind? To some, these bring to mind images of a trail in the woods, others a winter landscape near the top of a mountain or perhaps a sunny beach. People are inherently drawn to these landscapes, often with positive associations given safe access to these spaces. There is a good reason for why and research supporting the need to engage with nature for one’s well being.
In an increasingly digital and technologically focused society, humans are spending greater time on screens and indoors. The Covid-19 pandemic impacted this further and showcased an even deeper connection to our technology. Despite this need and reliance on computers, there is a strongly rooted relationship to nature that cannot be denied. In fact, there is an increasing body of research indicating that nature is beneficial if not essential for human health. Even within urban spaces, parks and green areas are intentionally utilized to promote time in nature, so what are the benefits and why should we consider our own engagements with nature?
Generally speaking, being (safely) in nature causes the human brain to slow down compared to urban environments. Cities end up being overrun with activity, from cars and other vehicles to advertisements and noise pollution surrounding an individual at any given moment. This intensity of stimulation causes individuals to constantly have elevated brain activity; removing these factors allows the brain to take a breather and exposure to nature has been found to lower blood pressure, tension, and stress.
This connection to nature allows individuals to also develop a sense of appreciation for the environment, making more ecologically conscious decisions. There have been several correlation studies and experiments examining how people react to their exposure as it relates to interpersonal dynamics and environmental problem solving. John Zelenski, PhD, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada conducted two such experiments, which supported this idea. In one, students were shown nature documentaries or videos about architecture and then played a game around harvesting fish. The group that saw the nature video were more likely to make sustainable choices for the fish and cooperate better with others (Zelenski et al. 2015). In another, students acted more positively to classmates and strangers after visiting a nature school compared to an aviation museum. (Dopko et al 2019). Being a part of this much bigger whole seems to encourage more in depth connection with others, which can yield positive benefits for those who engage.
An important caveat to this relationship with nature is that individuals must feel safe and welcomed in these environments. Naturally, if the space is inherently stressful to an individual it becomes hard to actualize these benefits. It would be remiss to not mention, then, issues of accessibility and safety that have been historically present within the outdoor industry. Traditionally, these spaces have been reserved for individuals of wealth, means, and inaccessible to people of historically underrepresented backgrounds. Feelings of exclusion and in some cases very imminent dangers have limited the availability of nature to individuals who feel as though they do not belong. While nature might seemingly be a place that should be available to all, it has not been and the work must continue to improve access. Not everyone is within immediate proximity to green spaces and others still cannot afford to travel on their own means. To promote these benefits we must consider the history, need, and evolution of these areas to truly create opportunities for humans to grow.
These findings support the notion that being in nature and engaging with it is important for relationships and problem solving.
Our work at the Colorado Outdoor Education Center focuses on supporting these interactions from adolescence through adulthood across our program offerings. Whether through summer camps, outdoor education programs, or interactions with adults at The Nature Place, the organization seeks to promote these connections with nature to help individuals grow as problem solvers, leaders, global citizens, and bring joy and release to an increasingly busy world.
Bratman, Gregory, et al. “Nature and Mental Health: An Ecosystem Service Perspective .” Science, 24 July 2019, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aax0903.
Delagran, Louise. “How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing?” Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing, University of Minnesota, https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing.
Dopko, Raelyne L., et al. “The Psychological and Social Benefits of a Nature Experience for Children: A Preliminary Investigation.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Academic Press, 11 May 2019, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494418307102?via%3Dihub.
Robbins, Jim. “Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health.” Yale E360, Yale School of the Environment, 9 Jan. 2020, https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health.
Weir, Kirsten. “Nurtured by Nature.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, 1 Apr. 2020, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature.
White, Mathew P., et al. “Spending at Least 120 Minutes a Week in Nature Is Associated with Good Health and Wellbeing.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 13 June 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44097-3.