It’s been snowy around here, what with the Bomb Cyclone and an arctic chill descending on us for days. But the dog and I have still managed to take long daily walks in the woods, which are even more beautiful with the white snow sharp against dark boughs and shadowy hollows.
Walking and listening in the woods reminded me that spending time in nature simply makes us all a little saner. Here’s why:
• Nature is restorative. “Restorative” is a vague concept, but really what it means is that you will be returned to a more whole state by spending time in nature. And who doesn’t feel somewhat scattered and lost these days, with screens and headlines constantly blaring? People who spend time in spaces that have a lot of different types of plants, birds, and wildlife say they are more relaxed than those who either don’t get out into nature much, or who go to parks or places where the space is highly manicured and limited to only a few different plants and very little wildlife. (Have you ever been to one of those beautifully landscaped tourist destinations and noticed that, yes, it’s picture perfect, but there’s not a bird or a butterfly to be seen? That’s a sign that I shouldn’t be there either. Snap a pic, and find someplace more friendly to living creatures!)
• Nature improves attention. Research consistently shows that both adults and children pay attention better and have improved memory skills if they get outside daily, preferably in green spaces with a lot of different plants and living beings. Think too much about that, and you’ll start to wonder why we force our littlest humans to play on metal playgrounds over concrete slabs.
• Nature improves your mental health. You’ll be less stressed and frustrated, and generally happier, if you spend time with nature, indoors or out. You’ll be less anxious and less depressed if you can find or create green space in your life. Ideally, those are outdoor spaces but I am also a huge advocate for bringing plants indoors if you can. Don’t go full jungalow (an interior decorating style thick with plants) just yet! More on that in future days.
It turns out that what we most resonate with in nature are elements that fascinate us — in other words, a wide range of plants and living things to watch. An Australian team just published some interesting research on this topic in an effort to understand what kinds of spaces people like best. This is important not just for you as you decide where you are going to spend your green time, but for developers and planners who are trying to figure out what to do with public spaces. The researchers surveyed 447 people to find out about their favorite natural spaces, and what they loved about them. Nature parks and botanical gardens ranked high on the list of favorite places, with people often commenting that specific birds, animals, and plants were their most loved elements of those spaces. The research appeared in a 2017 issue of Frontiers of Psychology (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5717422/)
So, a little real talk, if this has inspired you to get out there. As a parent, I am always dragging my two young ones around with me. I think it’s essential for all of us that they spend as much time burning off energy outdoors as possible. But here are hree truths about taking children out there with you:
1. You’re going to need more water and snacks than you can imagine. Just bring them. There’s really nothing to be gained by telling your children they have to wait till later, except unnecessary whining. I believe in water as the only drink option, however. It’s better for them.
2. It’s not going to be idyllic. I am sure there are families out there who venture into nature and have a postcard quality time, complete with picnics and successful fishing trips. That’s not my family, and I’m going to bet it’s not most people’s families. The reality is that kids will whine, fuss, and suddenly become too tired to walk another step. They’ll get over it. Push through. It’s worth it.
3. You might have to make the fun up yourself. I’m a big fan of letting children explore nature using their own imagination, but there comes a point on every hike when they need a little encouragement in the form of fun. My husband played a fun game with the kids on a recent hike in below-freezing temperatures. They loved it, and I recommend it – The place we were walking had a lot of boardwalks. Every time we came to a bridge my husband and the boys named it – This is “the bridge of laughter” or This is “the bridge of not knowing anything” – and then had to act it out while on the bridge.
Two Challenges for You Today
1. Research five green spaces near you that you haven’t been to yet, and pick one to visit next.
2. Take time to notice details in a natural setting. Really, it doesn’t matter if you only have a potted plant, the birdfeeder outside your work or school window, or a spirited weed coming up through a crack in the sidewalk, it’s noticing the details of nature that seem to improve mood and well being, according to the Australian team. Take at least five minutes to sit and look at your patch of greenery to fully appreciate it. Sketch or write about your observations if you feel like it.