Staring at the Walls

With so much beautiful art and photography in the world, it’s sometimes hard to choose decor. But if you have to choose between an urban scene, or a natural scene, just know this – research suggests that people feel a little less happy when they are looking at urban images than when they gaze upon nature scenes. These observations were drawn from a study that compared the impact of images such as a walking trail in a forest with a sidewalk scene in a city area. In fact, people who look at pictures of nature not only retain their good mood — they also report more feelings of fascination and “being away” (distracted from their current setting) than when looking at images of the city. The researchers, writing in the February 2018 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5858369/), comment that this research further supports the restorative quality nature has.

The study had a handful of limitations – and notably did not find a difference between natural or urban scenes on the rumination of study participants. That doesn’t close the door on the question of whether viewing nature might in some way affect rumination (a mental habit of repeatedly thinking about troublesome concerns), and the research team proposed that research along these lines continue.

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Outdoor Classrooms Improve Indoor Learning

horns

Last week I had the opportunity to do one of my favorite activities: educating children about our forest habitat. Often I have the job of shepherding groups of children through the deciduous forest in which we live, but this time I had a station where I was talking about the animals that live in our forests in Virginia. Believe it or not, I love doing this! I was speaking with 2nd graders, so they were very energetic – it was a field trip after all! – but they were also full of wonder. I truly believe that wonder and information are what will enable all of us to live more peaceably with the natural world. We talked about habitats, and food chains, bob cats and deer, coyotes, foxes, and rabbits, and, of course, skunks. For the girl who suggested a million times that every creature we discussed should eat fish, we talked about river otters. Overall, it was a wonderful time. They learned a lot, and I lost my voice!

Then I came back and did a little research, as I love to do, to see what has been published on the topic. I was curious because my children’s school has a beautiful outdoor classroom that is in a similar forest, but it’s been my experience that sometimes teachers feel it’s a lot of trouble to go out there. I am very sympathetic to their viewpoint, and as someone who knows I could never be a teacher and stands in awe of all they do every day, please know that’s not a criticism. So I thought it was interesting that a recent publication in a 2017 issue of Frontiers in Psychology (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5758746/) suggests that children are more attentive and focused indoors in the period after they’ve spent time learning in an outdoor classroom. Good news! And that goes along with all the research that suggests time outdoors enhances our memory and attention – adults AND children! So teachers, if you want happier, better behaved, more focused children – find a way to take them outside for a nature lesson.

Snapping Turtle: A Teachable Moment

Snapping Turtle

A friend texted me this morning, while I was busy procrastinating: “Since I know you love nature, would you like to come see a snapping turtle in our garden?” Of course! My husband and I dropped everything, and walked down the street to our neighbor’s garden (which is a fantastic wildlife and child friendly garden! But I’ll write about that another day). There, trying to dig her way under leaf litter close to a young hydrangea near a tree, was a snapping turtle bigger than a dinner plate.

Ordinarily, none of us would be too worried about snapping turtles – although…. my neighbor had been surprised by the turtle while she was working in the garden less than a foot away. We know what to do – avoid them and let them do their thing! However, we all have small children. I won’t speak for her children, who are very polite and well-behaved, but I can say for sure that my 7 yr old, who is an extremely active and curious and probably over confident child, would immediately try to pick up such a large turtle.

So we discussed the options. We all believed that she lives in a nearby pond (where the kids go to catch tadpoles), but was probably out and about looking for somewhere to lay eggs. This garden, being much more naturalistic than a yard coated in thick turf, and full of newly planted seedlings, probably appealed to her a great deal. We learned quickly that trying to move the turtle to another location is illegal. Naturalists advised us that after she lays her eggs, she’ll go back to her watery home.

So, the turtle is now a teachable moment. Where we had once been thinking to get rid of her in order to protect the children we are now going to have to do something that will probably serve them better: teach them about snapping turtles. Basically, they need to know how to identify a snapping turtle, where to be cautious of them, and, probably most importantly, to leave snapping turtles (and all other wildlife) alone, as much as possible. That’s a rule that benefits both the children and the wildlife!

That said, on the way back from lunch, I pulled over abruptly on a road leading to our house because two mature adult slides and a baby slider were in the middle of the road. Another lady stopped too, and together we moved the turtles out of the road in the general direction they were traveling. So, there are times when it’s good to stop and touch the wildlife!

Hiking Makes Us Happy

Waterfall

We discovered a new favorite hike this past weekend – the Rose River Loop Trail in the Shendandoah National Park. The trail is moderately challenging, with plenty of areas where you have to clamber up and down rocks. But it also descends through thick forest to the Rose River. There are plenty of waterfalls large and small to see along the way. We were not able to spend as much time as we would have wanted along the river, because we didn’t bring towels and swimsuits. We also had our dog with us, and a couple with a dog was behind us, so we felt some pressure to continue on. Unfortunately, our dog is a vigorous and sonorous barker, and he would simply have barked the whole way if they were in front.

So, guess what? A three hour hike in the mountains has been shown to make people happier than staying home. That’s no surprise to someone like me, who loves to hike! That data comes from a May 2017 PLoS One article published by a team from Austria (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28520774). They compared people who hiked for three hours with indoor treadmill activity or sedentary activity, and found that hiking generally improved mood best. Their conclusion – hikes should be on the prescription pad! My only thought is that if the hike took place with a group, or even a few other people, there’s the social factor as well, to consider. I don’t know if one would be happier hiking solo. I know I prefer company!

I was hiking with my husband and my two elementary school age boys, as well as the dog.

So, a couple of tips for hiking with children:

(1) make sure you have lots of snacks and water, and the patience to stop frequently for snacks and water.

(2) let go of any fantasy that your children will enjoy the whole thing. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they fuss loudly.

(3) take swimming gear and clean clothes, especially if you’ll be around waterfalls. And be prepared for the hassle of having to change the kids in and out of said clothes or swim gear.

(4) take bug spray

(5) give everyone a whistle. We did have a child wander off the path and get turned around. However, he panicked fast and yelled loudly, so we could find him quickly. Another child who panics less quickly might have gone further.

Green Space in Cities Lowers Type 2 Diabetes Risk

sun and trees

Adults who live more than 0.8 km (or about a half a mile) from urban green space appear to be less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, according to research in the 2018 BMJ Open (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5781018/). The researchers were actually interested in whether proximity to green space in inner city areas had an impact on BMI (body mass index) or type 2 diabetes risk, or both. The research was done in Germany, so perhaps it is only relevant to Germans. Nonetheless, they found that while green space location doesn’t appear to have a relationship with BMI, they did find that adults who are closer to green space are less likely to have type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is correlated with excess weight — and other factors such as sedentary lifestyles. This research (and other similar research) suggests that if green space is close enough, people will go to it and enjoy it. A 2011 study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health seems to confirm that people who are closer to green space are also more likely to be physically active and closer to normal weight. I personally think that there may be other factors involved. We know that green space reduces stress and depression — and it is also possible that these feed into people’s diabetes risk as well.

This is important news for families as well as city planners – it’s a good idea to get out into green space together if you can. And if you have a chance to advocate for more green spaces in your neighborhood, do so.

If “Green Space” Were a Pill …

Cypress Knees Chippokes SP

When my father came to visit, we spent only a small portion of time at home, mostly to cook or play Monopoly. Otherwise, he and I and my boys were out in the natural world, visiting state parks and throwing treats to the sea birds that follow the ferries near us. The good news is that we do not always have to travel to a state park to get to our “green space” – in fact a short 5 minute walk takes us to a very nice trail that curves through forests and around ponds and grassy meadows.

It turns out, especially for children, that having to walk more than 20 minutes to a green space is correlated with poor health and wellbeing. I found this out when I was reading a fascinating article that reviewed research examining children’s wellbeing and green space. The review, published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing (http://www.pediatricnursing.org/article/S0882-5963(17)30185-9/fulltext), ultimately included information from over 75,000 children in multiple studies.

The overall benefits of spending time in green space, for children, were such a long promising list, I started thinking about pharmaceuticals. Imagine, if you will, a parent who is told, “This pill, taken at least once daily, could improve your child’s memory, focus, attention, friendships, and self-esteem while reducing stress, attention deficit, hyperactivity, and problem behaviors. Oh, and you can actually take this pill as often as needed, with few side effects. If you have to take a break from this pill, there will be no harmful withdrawal symptoms!”

Well, that’s green space for you. Take your daily green space prescription daily, and it’s good for you and your children. The problem for a lot of parents and caregivers is simply a matter of access. How do you get to safe green space? If it’s greater than 20 minutes by foot, people won’t go. Time is another issue. In working families, evenings are packed with dinner, homework, and sometimes other activities – leaving very little time for that all important green time. And, let’s face it, children are not always cooperative and interested in going for a walk in the woods or by a lake! But — they are not much more cooperative with taking pills for any of the problems outside play time in a green area can address. So, parents, would you rather have your child fuss at you for trying to get them out into nature, or fuss at you and refuse to take their meds? By the way, as always, I am not saying that medication isn’t sometimes necessary. Children who have to take medication for behavioral health issues also can benefit from green space! And there’s no nasty medication interaction to worry about ….

The author of this review article makes a crucial plea for thinking about including more green space in developed areas, such as neighborhoods, schools, and even hospital gardens. Ya’ll, we humans respond so well to nature that simply looking out a window at a natural setting, or looking at a photograph of nature on the wall, can reduce our stress. Let’s not be stingy with what the planet gives us.

Greener ‘Hoods = Better Moods

 

Foggy morning slim moon

Almost every morning, my dog and I get up around sunrise and go for a run along a nearby trail. To me, this is an almost magical time, full of cacophonous bird and frog song, and the moon and planets sloping towards the other side of the planet. My dog agrees, reporting back to me that the world is full of the rich scents of deer and other animals who have been active all night. Our run together is only a brief taste of what he really wants – to be bounding through the forests and streams near our home.

And yet, there are times when I drive by new developments where hardly a tree is visible, or through cities where only a small, scraggly tree dots the pavement here and there, bravely hanging on in hopes of succession, I suppose. These are, in my view, hostile habitats for both me and my dog. And probably trees as well.

Turns out, adults fair better when their developed communities are intermingled with forested spaces. They feel better, and their mood appears to be improved in these types of spaces, according to research published in a 2018 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29443932). The discussion of the results is fascinating, and highlights the complexity of understanding green space and mood and our lived human lives. We respond well to the presence of green growing plants and trees, but we do not want to be overwhelmed by them. We do best when we have the option to go into a forested area, and come back out. And, the authors suggest, there is likely a strong interplay between the presence of green spaces in communities, our social connectedness in those green spaces (picnics and frisbee anyone?), and the fact that living in a community where green spaces are preserved and enjoyed is a tangible reflection of shared values. In other words, we love green spaces not just for themselves and the beings they host, but for the meaning and connection they provide for us.

Think of the implications for the way we plan and develop communities of all sizes, from local schools and faith institutions, to new communities or shared work spaces.