Tag Archives: Nature

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.

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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.

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

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.