Connection with Nature
Research into the positive benefits a connection with nature has on an individuals’ health, wellbeing and development.
What does “connection to nature” mean?
In its broadest sense, “connection to nature” describes the mix of feelings and attitudes that people have towards (being outdoors) in nature. You might also call it “loving nature”, having a “sense of awe and wonder” or simply “caring for the environment”. (RSPB UK)
Green spaces aren’t just for nature – they boost our mental health too
We’re beginning to understand just how vital access to natural space is for our mental well-being – with implications for how we design cities worldwide
From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the orange gardens of Seville, urban planners down the ages have taken inspiration from nature. And those of us living in the concrete and brick jungle have perhaps never appreciated scraps of green space more than during the covid-19 pandemic. During lockdowns, city dwellers across the world have found parks and gardens – where they exist an unexpected source of calm and joy.
That comes as no surprise to the growing number of psychologists and ecologists studying the effects of nature on people’s mental health and well-being. The links they are uncovering are complex, and not yet fully understood. But even as the pandemic has highlighted them, it has also exposed that, in an increasingly urbanised world, our access to nature is dwindling – and often the most socio-economically deprived people face the biggest barriers. Amid talk about building back better, there is an obvious win-win-win here. Understand how to green the world’s urban spaces the right way and it can boost human well-being, help redress social inequality and be a boon for the biodiversity we all depend on.
On evolutionary timescales, urban living is a new invention. Our species has existed for at least 300,000 years, but the oldest cities are only some 6000 years old. Only recently – little more than a decade ago, according to figures from the UN Population Division – have we become a majority-urban species. Now the number of us living in cities is booming like never before. By 2050, projections suggest almost 70 per cent of us will be urban dwellers (see “Urban latecomers”).
Our late arrival into cities might help explain our affinity with nature and green spaces. In 1984, biologist Edward O. Wilson made this connection explicit with his “biophilia” hypothesis. His idea was that the environment in which humans evolved has shaped our brain, priming it to respond positively to cues that would have enhanced survival for our ancestors, such as trees, savannah, lakes and waterways. This, Wilson argued, is why being in nature makes us feel good.
Whether that is the reason or not, the past few years have seen an explosion of research finding concrete links between increased exposure to nature and not just improved physical health, but better mental health, too. Mental health issues are estimated to account for as much as a third of all years lived with disability, and account for around 13 per cent of disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) lost, similar to the toll of cardiovascular disease and circulatory disorders.
A common problem, however, is that people don’t know about the benefits of nature, says psychologist Marc Berman at the University of Chicago.
“Scientists need to work a bit harder to get out of the ivory tower, to get their message across,” he says. “It’s important to talk to communities. It’s not going to work to be paternalistic.”
And it isn’t just about knowledge: people need to also experience the effect that urban green spaces have on their sense of well-being. “If we can do interventions where we can encourage people to try it, then I think they will buy in,”
That is why the pandemic could be such a powerful force for change. “Our planning – today and into the future – will affect the well-being of billions of people,” says Daily. And if we can build back greener, that will create a virtuous circle. Recent studies from both China and England find that feeling more connected with nature makes people more likely to adopt positive environmental behaviours. If so, then greener cities won’t just improve the mental health of their residents, but also focus our minds on the needs of nature beyond our urban jungles.
Greener cities won’t just improve the mental health of their residents, but also focus our minds on the needs of nature beyond our urban jungles.
Why being outdoors heals us
It is now well evidenced that spending time outdoors can be therapeutic for both our physical and mental health. Over the last five years especially, there has been a tsunami of research about therapeutic outdoor experiences covering everything from walking, to mindfulness, to gardening, to working with animals, to surfing, to Forest Bathing to wilderness travel.
But really, most of us don’t need the research – the only evidence we require is our own personal experience. Anyone who spends time outdoors knows it’s therapeutic. No-brainer.
So we know outdoor experiences heal us – whether we trust our own experience or head to the University library to drown in the formal evidence. But why do they heal us? How does it work? What is it about being outdoors that is therapeutic?
As technology has continued to progress, it seems that people are spending less and less time in the great outdoors.
The difference is generational – people who are now in their fifties likely spent much, if not all, of their childhood outside. But people in their twenties likely spent much more of their time indoors.
Regardless of how you spent your childhood, as a working adult, the chances are high that you spend much of your time enclosed within four walls, with maybe a single window acting as a veil between you and the outside world.
Source: Playground Professionals
Does access to trails really lead to healthier communities? According to research the answer is a resounding yes.
Does access to trails really lead to healthier communities? According to research the answer is a resounding yes. In fact, according to a study released in 2014 by the American Journal of Public Health, there is a direct and significant measurable correlation between how close people live to biking and walking infrastructure and the amount of weekly exercise they get. Read More
Source: American Trails
Beyond the physical health benefits of trails, the mental health benefits of trail access is also invaluable.
Almost all outdoor recreation activities involve trails in some capacity, be it kayaking, snowmobiling, horseback riding, or hiking, trails are what allow us to play in the outdoors. As we learn more about the effect spending time in the outdoors has on mental health, it becomes clear that access to these outdoor activities has a real and measurable effect on psychological well-being. Read More
Source: American Trails
According to a recent study, 40 million US adults currently suffer from anxiety. That’s almost 15 percent of the adult population. With this many people suffering from anxiety, it’s no surprise that many are turning to the great outdoors as a source of relief.
So, can camping help anxiety? Yes, and we’re about to talk about how camping can boost your serotonin levels, expose you to plenty of fresh air, and get you away from modern life and technology, which can trigger anxiety attacks.
Source: 50 Campfires
We’re all familiar with the idea that nature can be psychologically uplifting. But for some people, a single, brief “peak experience” in a natural setting, lasting mere seconds or minutes, changes their view of themselves or their relationships with others so profoundly that their lives are positively transformed as a result.
An article from Education HQ on the possibility of improving kid’s mental health by combing therapy and adventure.
Dr Danielle Tracey and her colleagues Dr Gray, Dr Truong and Dr Ward of Western Sydney University sought to address this gap through a study using acceptance and commitment therapy alongside adventure therapy. The new interdisciplinary approach aims to promote the wellbeing of children with challenging behavioural and or emotional needs.
The program is based on interactive and outdoor activities. These included themed nature walks and the use of metaphors to help children identify anger, games working with knots to develop problem solving skills, and the minefield game in which students verbally guide their blindfolded teachers though an imaginary minefield to build trust and respect.
As Tracey explained, “The heart of adventure therapy is using the outdoors and experiential learning to deal with psychosocial difficulties.
Source: Education HQ
Eight Common Measures
Parks and trail corridors have been important for public health in the United States for more than 100 years. The provision of urban parks for general public use became common in the mid-1800s. During that period, New York City’s Central Park was promoted as a way of providing access to healthy outdoor space for the city’s growing population.
Fredrick Law Olmsted, the superintendent of Central Park in 1857, put forth the idea “That great public parks, such as his proposed Greensward, would function as the ‘lungs of the city’—green open spaces where city dwellers could breathe in clean air” (Fisher 2010). Dr. John Henry Rauch (1828–94), who served as the Chicago sanitary superintendent after the Civil War, successfully advocated land use policies favoring the establishment of large urban parks (Frumkin, Frank, and Jackson 2004).
Since that time governments across the country, and at every level, have provided parks to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their residents.
As life becomes busier, we’re realising how important it is to protect our mental health and wellbeing.
The Five Ways to Wellbeing are an easy way to improve mental wellbeing no matter where you are or what time it is and in a way that suits you. Nature is the ideal place to practice the Five Ways to Wellbeing. Evidence from across the world is showing that spending time in nature makes us feel healthier, happier and more optimistic.
Local park and recreation agencies provide health and wellness opportunities for all populations in communities across the country. As America continues to face serious health issues parks and recreation offer an affordable and accessible solution.
For Exercise, Nothing Like the Great Outdoors
Long walks can improve moods and reduce anxiety, but the benefits may be greatest if the walks take place outdoors rather than in a gym, according to a new study by researchers in Austria. And while the Alps may be a particularly fine place to hike, a vigorous walk in the woods or paths near home may provide the mental boost we need to keep us moving … Read More
While from the UK , this video outlines the findings of a literature review undertaken for the Sport and Recreation Alliance (UK) investigating the health benefits of outdoor recreation and the potential role outdoor activities can play in addressing physical and mental health inequalities, so is very relevant to the situation in Queensland.
The research was undertaken by a research team from Manchester Metropolitan University Business School led by Dr Chris Mackintosh and researchers Dr Elesa Zehndorfer and Dr Natalie Darko.
Part of urban planning has traditionally involved the inclusion of parks and open space. This is valuable for providing space for recreation, as well as improving the visual appeal of any area & fulfilling other pragmatic intentions – e.g. reducing water run-off, filtering the air, mitigating heat build-up from hard surfaces, enabling community and/or wildlife ‘corridors’ …
finding out how connected to nature the UK’s children are
When young people are connected to nature, it has positive impacts on their education, physical health, emotional wellbeing, and personal and social skills, and helps them to become responsible citizens.
“Childhood is a time of rapid physical, mental and emotional development. Time spent in nature 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.”
Planet Ark and Toyota Australia have commissioned research for the last four years on the implications of contact with nature on an individuals’ health, wellbeing and development. Research shows that time in nature helps us thrive as individuals – physically, intellectually, emotionally, mentally, and ethically. The results present a compelling business case regarding the value of nature and the multitude of benefits associated with green time including enhanced learning, concentration, healing, relaxation and recovery, to name a few.
Download Key Research Findings
Needing Trees: The Nature of Happiness (1mb pdf)
Investigates how contact with nature affects people’s life-long happiness and the physiological impacts it has on the brain.
Valuing Trees: What is Nature Worth? (1mb pdf)
Highlights the financial, health and well-being, social, and environmental benefits of nature at home, in the workplace, and at school.
Missing Trees: The Inside Story of an Outdoor Nation (1.34mb pdf)
Reveals shrinking backyards, screen time and long working hours have concerning implications for Australia’s renowned outdoor way of life and our health.
Planting Trees: Just What the Doctor Ordered
Focuses on the benefits of interaction with nature for children’s health, wellbeing and development.
Climbing Trees: Getting Aussie Kids Back Outside
Shows a dramatic and worrying shift in childhood activity in Australia from outdoor play to indoor activity in the space of one generation
So How Can National Tree Day Help?
As Australia’s largest community tree planting and nature care event National Tree Day is a great way to get outside and connect with nature. It’s a memorable day out for families, giving them the opportunity to do something positive for their health and wellbeing, as well as the health of the environment.
With thousands of sites at schools, parks, gardens and other locations across the country, National Tree Day and Schools Tree Day are the perfect first steps to getting Aussie children and families to connect with nature.
Discover a range of outdoor activities that parents and caregivers can integrate into a regular routine for their children.
Browse, learn and share current and emerging findings that can help make a solid case based on the research to policy-makers, school boards, community groups, health providers, urban planners and others that can influence the systems to connect children, families and communities to nature.
Principal Researchers: Professor Mardie Townsend, Ms Rona Weerasuriya
The effects of living in a “green” environment cannot be underestimated … Since the early 1980s, environmental psychologists have studied the health effects of contact with nature and concluded that humans depend on nature not simply for material requirements – such as water, food and shelter – but also for emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. The range of psychological benefits for people who visit green, open spaces is vast and includes improved mood, lower levels of anxiety, lower stress levels, lower levels of depression and increased physical activity …
You don’t have to climb a mountain for a “peak experience” in nature to be life-changing
Nature offers one of the most reliable boosts to your mental and physical well-being. Here are just a few potential benefits:
1. Improved short-term memory
2. Restored mental energy
3. Stress relief
4. Reduced inflammation
5. Better vision
6 -11 READ MORE
Ecotherapy encompasses a wide variety of interventions, whether they be prolonged periods in wilderness, gardening or individual therapy. They are all united by the concept that exposure to nature will improve wellbeing and healthy living …
Most people believe that the outdoors is good for us. Now a raft of research proves that time out in nature is essential to our physical, psychological health and wellbeing…
…Whether you’re playing in a park with your children or getting lost alone in the forest, here’s 10 reasons why time outdoors is time well spent.