Nature: It does a body – and brain – good (Guest blogger: Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood)


I teach a course titled Inquiry, Investigation, and Play in the Primary Years. A few weeks ago, we went outside to explore our campus and generate ideas for possible long term, outdoor investigations. I wanted our teacher candidates to consider possibilities for outdoor experiences with children in their placements and in their own classrooms when they graduate. They came up with ideas for mapping the area, creating field guides specific to this location, tracking weather or moisture levels in the soil, and studying everything from the Canada geese to the nearby prairie habitat. They thought of many interesting pathways for inquiry, but what intrigued me most was the conversation we had when we returned to the classroom.

I began talking about evidence researchers have been accumulating for several decades about the benefits of time spent outside on health and well-being. I shared the fact that several studies indicate that time in nature can reduce the symptoms of ADHD (as much as medication in some children) and increase focus and attention. A hand went up. A student shared that she was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and she and her parents discovered that she could reduce her medication when she played outside every day. She commented, “I still take medication, but I can tell when I need to get outside more. When I do, the symptoms settle down.”

I then shared other studies that indicate that time in nature improves the well-being of people experiencing anxiety and depression. Two more hands went up. A student talked about her struggles with depression and anxiety disorder, then said, “My doctor prescribed medication, but he also told me to spend time outside regularly. I can tell when I do and when I don’t. I feel better when I do.” The second student, who is on medication for anxiety disorder, discovered by chance that being outside helped. She moved to a new location that allows her to walk to campus and has been able to reduce her medication dose. She commented, “It works way better than a treadmill.” Other students began to share similar stories. It became apparent that roughly a fourth of the students in this class were on medications of some sort for mental health reasons. The number is likely higher as my estimate is based on those who shared their experiences in class. Obviously, not all students are comfortable with revealing such personal information.

I talked with them about my own experiences with a head injury. Several years ago, I developed post-concussion syndrome after being rear ended by a texting driver. For over a year, I was extremely sensitive to sensory overload. Visual clutter, sounds, bright lights, smells, and too many people were just the beginning of a long list of things that overwhelmed me. I felt, at times, like the cartoon thermometer about to blow. I discovered by chance that going outside made the thermometer immediately start to go down. For me, it didn’t even have to be a “nice outside.” Just standing in a parking lot helped. It’s a strategy I still use to manage residual symptoms.

There’s more!

  • Finnish researchers have discovered that spending just 5 hours a month in nature is enough to sustain benefits such as reduced anxiety and depression.
  • Extensive research in Japan and South Korea show that time in nature reduces high blood pressure and improves sleep.
  • Other research has shown that viewing pictures of nature, being around house plants, or having a “green” view out a window improve mood and focus.
  • Watching a nature video lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels in people who’ve been exposed to distressing photos within 4 – 7 minutes. Watching a video of people walking in a mall or of cars driving by had little effect.

Here is a link to a short article that summarizes some additional research findings:

https://www.parent.co/8-science-backed-reasons-for-letting-your-kids-play-outdoors/

 

Now what?

So what to do with this information? One student suggested that instead of just listening to an upset friend, they could listen and take a walk outside. We are fortunate to be on a campus with extensive woodland trails and gardens. They talked about reminding each other to go outside and walk a trail or sit by the pond when the stress of work and school gets to be too much. They came up with a variety of ideas for motivating themselves to get outside more, including Frisbie golf, washer toss, and giant Jenga (who knew?).

We then turned to their role as future teachers.

  • Armed with research to support the importance of time in nature, they can become advocates for green space around schools. In fact, one of the assignments for this class includes mapping their placement school grounds and determining a way to bring in more natural elements. They then write a mock letter to an organization that funds school projects for grant money for the improvement.
  • They can become advocates for adequate recess for children because they are aware of studies that show improved learning outcomes and better health for children who have time to play outside.
  • They can do outdoor projects and investigations throughout the year because they can explain the benefits to both families and administrators.

These teacher candidates now have some additional strategies for taking care of themselves and their friends. They are also more prepared to support the health and well-being of the children they will eventually teach.

And how about you?

Early childhood faculty in Illinois have experienced quite a bit of stress in recent years. You can use connections with nature to your advantage. You don’t have to travel far to experience benefits. Find a tree or a little patch of green and spend some time there. A visit to a park or wooded trail is even better. Remember – it can take just 5 hours a month to reap sustained benefits. Use some nature photos for your screen background. Keep a plant in your office. You will bring a bit of beauty and perhaps some well-deserved serenity into your life.

For current, detailed information on worldwide research about the impact of time in nature, check out The Nature Fix by Florence Williams at http://www.florencewilliams.com/books-1/

Elizabeth Sherwood, Ed. D. is an associate professor in Early Childhood Education, Department of Teaching and Learning, at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Her interests include early childhood history, prekindergarten, nature and the young child, and science education in the early years. She is the co-author of numerous books in science education for early childhood teachers and was a consultant with ISBE for the development of Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards in science.

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