All posts by fleetpen

I am a freelance writer focusing on health journalism, medical writing and editing, and writing for internal and external communications for institutions of higher education.

Houseplants, Air Quality, and You

IrisesIt’s houseplant appreciation day! I did not know this, until fellow blogger This Veggie Life mentioned it (https://thisveggielife.blog/2018/01/10/houseplant-appreciation-day/). Evidently I am not the only one who loves to have plants around!

So take a moment to water your plants. Repot them if they are getting a little root bound – or buy yourself a new plant for your desk or your home. Here’s my confession – I am more of a light green thumb than a true green thumb. But, I’m working on it. My goal this year is to keep more plants alive than I let go through neglect or any of the many errors we all make with watering, light, and so on. Actually, I’d love to be able to pull of a jungalow style! (look it up on Pinterest – it’s a thing!)

I don’t know about you, but when I walk into a space full of lush green plants, I just feel like a breathe easier. Science says that we actually do breathe more easily when we have plants indoors.

A team of researchers in Portugal wanted to find out if this effect works for schools as well. After nine weeks of looking at the air quality of school rooms with six hanging potted plants compared to rooms without plants, as well as outdoor air. The rooms that contained plants had a higher indoor air quality – lower levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), lower levels of carbon dioxide, and even lower levels of particulate matter in the air! The research appeared in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health in 2012 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23095155).

NASA has established that there are certain plants that do the best job of improving indoor air quality. Researchers there started looking at the question because if humans are going to live in space, we are probably going to be living in enclosed areas. The NASA teams wanted to know which plants would be most useful in that kind of environment. The answer is a list of plants that you can find easily, including golden pothos, English ivy, Peace lily, potted mums, and gerbera daisies. You can find the study results here:  https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19930073077.pdf On the whole, the plants improved the air in numerous ways, including removing benzene and formaldehyde from the air.

People are happier and more creative when they have plants in their workspace. I imagine this is true for children, too, although no study has been done to find out. One of the big challenges of course – as any indoor gardener knows – is keeping the plants alive and healthy looking. So, that is a little extra “work” but the pay off in terms of improved air quality and improved mood could be worth it!

Alright, so, I have a personal commitment to buy at least one new houseplant every other month. (On the in between months, I am focusing on lighting!) And I have to say that one of the sites that I am finding most inspiring this year about plants is http://www.succulentsandsunshine.com

Plants waiting potting

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ADHD is a walk in the park! Literally

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“My child just can’t pay attention! We are trying everything! I’m at my wits end!”

I hear this often from my friends who have children with what the adults around them call attention issues. Although the trend towards instantly medication children with ADHD seems to be losing strength, I still know many parents who have been told – or believe – that their child has attention problems. And then they are placed on the roller coaster of trying the numerous strategies for coping with attention that are out there (many of which are effective, don’t get me wrong).

But I want to highlight the importance of getting all children out into nature. Every child benefits, but children with ADHD (diagnosed or not) seem to benefit more than most.

My personal view of this is that children need to run and play, and every single day should begin with recess, PE, or a walk in a natural setting, so that children can focus better. The research supports this, by the way – a 20-minute walk in a natural setting improves children’s attention and memory. And you can chalk that up to the natural setting – researchers found that a walk in an urban setting did not lead to as much improvement, according to research published in a 2009 issue of the Journal of Attention Disorders. Yes, that’s old research, but as long as children are not starting their day off with a 20 minute walk in nature, I think it’s worth talking about why. This doesn’t have to be “wasted” time, either. A nature walk is an excellent opportunity for hands on learning and social skills building. It’s important to remember that children feel a natural awe over things that we adults might not even pay attention to anymore. A huge sunflower, the patterns of bark, the tiniest inch worm – children have a depth of appreciation for the minutiae that benefits all of us.

Alright, so let’s say that taking a walk in a park isn’t feasible for the 4.4 million children who are thought to have attention deficit or hyperactivity disorders. There’s another way – green play areas. I am not talking about hard metal bars painted green! Kids who have the opportunity to play in a space that has a variety of greenery – shrubs, flowers, trees, grass – have milder attention deficit symptoms than their ADHD peers who are in less green play spaces. Perhaps not surprisingly, children with hyperactivity do best in wide open green spaces, according to researchers publishing in the November 2011 issue of Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Again, old news, maybe – but take a journey around the schools in your area and you will probably not see the kinds of green play areas that would most benefit children.

At the very least, parents, let’s start making an effort to go walk in a park as often as possible with our kids. All this data applies to elementary school age children, by the way. We’ll explore the relationship between middle school and high school youth and green space at a later date.

Here’s what you can do –

  • If you have children, try to get them outside into parks as often as possible. Outside in general is good, of course, but the more diverse the greenery, animals, and birds, the better for them (and you!)
  • Advocate with your local schools, school board, or community for greener spaces – outdoor classrooms, school gardens, and so on. Of course, if you are committed enough to this to become a Master Gardener or a Master Naturalist, that’s even better! Volunteering is good for you too. But, it’s true that those green spaces require maintenance and even teachers sometimes need another trained adult to help them get the most out of green areas.
  • Create diverse green spaces in your neighborhoods and even indoors in your buildings. Make them inviting and friendly to children, as well as to parents.

Take a Hike! How “Green” Time Helps

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.

Want Health and Self-Esteem? Garden

Good news for gardeners – you’re probably less depressed, have healthier self esteem, and better overall health than non-gardening pals. And even better news – the garden doesn’t have to be on your  personal property! British researchers looked at the health and mood of 136 allotment gardeners and compared that information to that of about 133 same-age peers who were not gardening. An allotment garden is similar to a community garden space here in the United States, where gardeners come together in a shared space to work on their assigned patch of land. Those who gardened not only felt better about themselves, they said they had less fatigue and more overall energy. The research appeared in the Sept 2016 Journal of Public Health (Oxford). (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26515229)

Why does gardening have these effects? The researchers – at least in the abstract – don’t try to explain what they have observed. As a gardener myself (albeit, not a very good one!) I can say that the pure magic of gardening is heartening. The experience of planting a seed and seeing it grow is magical – even when you understand the science behind the process. There is still something that is just fundamentally rewarding about the entire process and you’re living in a pile of charts and calendars intended to guide your seeding and harvesting decisions.

It’s delicious to have a food garden, of course, because you can go one step further and make a meal for yourself and others – and frankly, beans and tomatoes and even humble eggplants are just better when they come out of your own garden. Self esteem can come from both growing and preparing these foods. But flower gardens and gardens that are enjoyed by children, birds, butterflies, and all other beings bring pleasure as well. Sharing the process of preparing, planting, and caring for a garden with my children is also nothing short of magical. (Bemoan the modern tech generation if you like, but know that the photo on my 6 yr old’s tablet screen is of the garden he worked on, as it flourished in early summer.) Maybe it’s all those healthy microbes in the soil that enhance the magic.

Finally, community gardening also can be rewarding because of the community aspect. We in the health community know that social connections make a difference to people’s health and emotional well-being.  The impact is even better if the shared connections are positive, and focused on a goal that everyone involved values. So, if you’re working in your own garden at home – whether it’s raised bed, container, or other types of gardening – it’s probably worthwhile to join a gardening club or other group so you can reap the benefits of socializing with other gardeners.

Time Outside Builds Kids’ Social Skills

Time outside could be what your child needs to get along better with his or her peers, according to the results of Canadian research published in the Sept 21, 2016 issue of Health Reports. The researchers were focusing mostly on activity levels and outside time. Not surprisingly, they found that the more time young people spend outside, the more active they are, and the less likely they are to be sitting at home. But, in addition to being more active, outside time appears to improve social health. Every additional hour of outside time for children correlates with better peer relationships and lower likelihood of overall difficulties. Here’s the link, if you want to dig deeper: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2016009/article/14652-eng.pdf

The researchers emphasize that just 15 minutes of outdoors time after school can greatly improve peer relationships. Although they do not explain why that is within this study, they draw on previous research showing that free play outside helps children cooperate better, self-regulate more effectively, and engage in problem-solving better, both alone and with others. They add that simply being physically active more could improve mental and emotional health.

Now, I am just going to be frank,  this doesn’t surprise me. I am what you might most kindly call an outdoorsy mom. This, for me, is a matter of sanity (mine!). Children should be outside, in my opinion, because that is the best place for them to run, scream, and do the things they do, which closely resembles what monkeys and young cubs do when left on their own.

Of course, it’s helpful to have some advanced planning. I always bring water and snacks. I always have a change of clothes and shoes for each child, and a towel. I almost always have a bag so we can pick up trash or recyclables (not cigarette butts!) And I don’t particularly care if the kids get dirty – they are washable.

So, why does outside time help? I’m guessing that for one thing, the energy children burn outside is energy that won’t go into fractiousness and arguing (yes, they do still argue outside tho!). I also think that being outside stimulates imaginative play in a different way. Don’t get me wrong, children can be imaginative indoors, of course, and they very often are. But when outside, the children often have a larger space in which to build their imaginary worlds. And, sometimes, as a bonus, we adults get invited in. Priceless.

End Bullying with Friendship

We just wrapped up a week of anti-bullying activities at my kids’ school. Which made me want to look at what the research really says about what reduces bullying behavior in school. I’ve found the work of a team at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill which highlights the importance of bystanders. They have two papers out related to social networks, bystander behavior, and bullying. The first appeared in the December 2015 issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescents. In this piece the authors, Evans and Smokowski, detail the importance of bystanders stepping in to support the bullied individual. What they found might not be surprising, but it speaks to an avenue for making a change. Those who were more likely to step in and stand up against bullying behavior were those who had positive relationships with their peers and teachers. In other words, people who feel socially confident – like others have their back – are more likely to step in. Interestingly, self esteem didn’t seem to be related, so it seems you could be someone who doubts yourself generally but does not doubt your relationships, and still step in to end a bullying episode.

The same team published an article in the June 2016 Journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development arguing that when those positive relationships are absent and, instead, the bystanders tend to have friends who are delinquent or who are accepting of bullying physically or verbally, they are not going to step in. They might, in fact, make the situation worse.

What does this say to me? Well, as a mother, these reports cause me to think that a wise school will invest in friendship building. This is a lot to put on a school. They have a lot of other things they are supposed to do, mandated to do, want to do, and just aren’t funded to do. And, frankly, it’s not easy to play matchmaker and encourage kids to befriend a wide circle of kids. So it’s tough to say, well, take the time to help kids build strong social networks. But, it seems to be essential, if your goal is to counter bullying.

And although these articles do not touch on this aspect, I will go ahead and say it – we do have data about which kids are more likely to be bullied. So again, the wise school would identify those kids and help to build their social network. Likewise, we know which kids are most likely to become bullies – and in any case, that’s an observable quality! So an immediate solution might be to direct those who bully or seem inclined to bully away from befriending like-minded peers.

Zero. The Acceptable Level of Lead.

The schools in our area have completed water tests and have determined that the lead in the water is below the maximum contamination level (MCL), according to news in our local paper. I am not satisfied with these results, personally. The MCL is set at 15 parts per billion (ppb), which seems a tiny amount, in practical terms. However, this month the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement in their journal Pediatrics (1) emphasizing that the healthy amount of lead in drinking water is zero.

We know now, after several decades of tracking the impact of lead exposure and also the impact of efforts to reduce lead exposure, that lead in childhood leads to lifelong and sometimes costly, expensive problems for individuals and for our communities. Lead exposure is tied to numerous lifelong challenges including but not limited to lower intelligence, antisocial behavior, attention deficits, impaired kidney function and, during reproductive years, spontaneous abortions and poorer birth outcomes overall. Reducing lead exposure is something that everyone should be able to get behind, regardless of their political or religious leanings.

That said, we all balk at the costs of addressing lead, despite evidence that dollars spent now reduce might higher expenses later on. And – perhaps more to the point – we can’t make any decisions without good information. There’s a lot more we need to know to make decisions in this instance. What, exactly, are the lead levels for each school, including private schools? What are our city and country drinking water lead levels? Which bottled water companies report their sources and lead level information? What do we need to do to filter our own water successfully?

As a parent, I encourage my children to drink water. It’s healthier for their body, their brain, and their weight than any other beverage. But it’s hard to have faith that the water they drink is safe for them, without the information. As a health and medical writer with training in public health, and as a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, I am dissatisfied with the reporting locally.

Please take a moment to go to the journal Pediatrics and read this free position statement, which includes all the information you need to get started thinking about lead exposure.

  1. Prevention of Childhood Lead Toxicity. Pediatrics. July 2016, VOLUME 138 / ISSUE 1. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/138/1/e20161493