Kids and Nature: Nurturing strong and healthy minds!

Many of you will be familiar with my passion for keeping children safe in their first three years of life through the Healing Our Children project, to improve their chances of growing into strong and healthy adults!  It is one thing to protect babies from violence to prevent trauma to the brain, but it is quite another to add in nurturing and nourishing activities to promote brain growth!

Author of ‘Your Brain on Nature”, Dr Alan Logan says “Your connection to nature established early in life to your experiences can actually influence your life course’s wellbeing”.  He argues that young children who are disconnected from nature experience a variety of health impacts from poor gut health and low immunity to compromised mental health.

Louv and Charles have been looking at a growing body of evidence across the world that suggests children are now spending much less time in nature-based outdoor activity and this is having a detrimental effect on their development.  Louv has gone so far as to use the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe this problem.

While some research findings have limitations, here are some of the trends worth noting.

  • Between the decades, 1980’s to 2000’s, children’s lives have become increasingly structured and media oriented, leaving less time for independent play of any kind, including unstructured play in nature. Free play is going down, screen time is going up.
  • Visits to parks, national forests and other public land is in decline and are a possible indicator of the frequency of children’s exposure to the natural world.
  • There are fewer opportunities for children to engage in the natural world, with parents containing their children to more restrictive spaces, the move towards play indoors with supervision rather than unsupervised in parks, playgrounds or streets, a dramatic decline in children’s independent mobility, parents exerting greater control over children’s play and limitations put on children’s adventurous play.
  • Nature may encourage and support children’s physical activity and help them maintain a healthy weight. The number of obese children is rising, moving into their teens they are much less physically active. Some studies have linked children’s health to green spaces in the neighbourhood.
  • Children have less knowledge about plants, animals and their environment today than their parents. One possibility is that biodiversity has decreased where children live; or children have little or no meaningful direct experience with local biodiversity.

Evidence of decreased mobility, reduced availability to natural areas, and restrictions placed by parents on children’s activities in natural areas, suggests fewer opportunities to engage in the natural world.

So what does the research say about the benefits of contact with nature for children and young people?

There are a number of studies that demonstrate children’s play outdoors reduces the impact of stressful life events and has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.  Children who experienced high levels of contact with nature report higher global self-worth and higher cognitive function increasing their ability to learn and concentrate, decreasing anxiety and increasing self-esteem.

In Australia, adolescents have talked about their desire for safe places to break away from everyday life, to restore energy levels and to make meaning from the ups and downs of life.  Between 25 and 31% of young people in Years 9 to 12 said that nature was their favourite place to find peace, quiet and freedom, feel calm, where they can think about things or where they can be themselves.  The study found nature plays an important role in maintaining stable mental health for adolescents, who live in a modern world where societal changes and pressures are rising at a rapid rate.

Primary school children’s access to nature in Melbourne primary schools has shown a number of social and mental health benefits including building resilience, improved attitudes towards school and relationships with peers and adults, greater calmness and less disruptive behaviour, growing sense of freedom and creativity, and enhanced self-confidence.

We know how good it is.  So how can we get our kids off their devices and plugging into nature?  Here are three nature connection invitations, I recently tried with some children aged 10-14 on a Guided Nature and Forest Therapy walk.  They absolutely loved them!

  1. Wish Upon a Rock

Find a rocky creek or waterway.  Invite the children to create a cairn.  For each rock they are able to stack and balance, they can make a wish, a hope or dream.  How many wishes can they balance?  Give the child time to reflect on their experience.

  1. Befriend a Tree.

Invite your child to find a tree they connect with.   Invite them to get up close and use their sense of touch to explore.  “What do you notice when you hold a leaf or two?  What do you hear when you move the leaves or run a stick against the bark?  What part of the tree has a smell?  Do you see different things when you get up close or sit further away?”  After a while, invite them to sit by themselves next to the tree and just spend some quiet time there.  “Perhaps a name for your tree might come to you.  I wonder what stories this tree might tell you while sitting there in quiet still awareness?”

  1. Paint a Rock

Using paint pens and a flat rock, write a message for the forest or for other beings in the forest to discover.  Hide your rocks in the forest.  Take a photo of them and post its location on the #NSWRocks Facebook or Instagram community page (or search your state for your local rock group).  You can join in the hunt for other kids rocks too.

Of course, it is much easier for children to feel comfortable in nature, if they have been exposed at an early age.  Taking your baby for a daily walk outside is giving them a great start to life.  You will be laying down the foundations of a strong and healthy brain.  Oh, and bringing down some of your own stress levels too, no doubt.  Here’s to happy child’s play in nature!

References:

ABC News (2016) ‘Gut health, mental wellbeing and immunity linked to outdoor play’

Charles C and Louv, R. (2009) Children’s Nature Deficit: What We Know – and Don’t Know.

Selhub E and Logan A. (2012) Your Brain on Nature

Townsend M and Weerasuriya R. (2010). Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being. Beyond Blue Limited: Melbourne, Australia.

3 Reasons Why Nature Therapy shouldn’t scare you!

There has been a long running discussion amongst Nature and Forest Therapy Guides in Australia about what to call our practice.  We have been trained in nature and forest therapy, yet many are preferring to use words like nature connection, forest bathing or shinrin yoku, because they think that people are put off by the word ‘therapy’.  Perhaps it conjures up images of sitting on a couch, while someone delves into your psyche.  Therapy is something you do when you have a mountain of problems you can’t solve on your own, right?

Instead of running away from using the word ‘therapy’ to describe our practice, I believe we have an opportunity to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes.  I argue that nature therapy is for everybody, whatever stage of life, however well functioning (or not) they may appear.

1.  There are lots of therapies that aren’t scary

Therapy is nothing to be afraid of.  If that were so, then we would also run the other direction if offered massage therapy, aromatherapy, yoga therapy and beauty therapy.  But no.  We can’t seem to get enough of these.  You can safely add nature therapy to your list of nourishing and empowering practices for your body, mind and spirit.

2.  We are not going to ‘do’ anything to you.

Nature and Forest Therapy Guides are not going to ‘do’ any therapy on you.  In fact, it is a practice which requires less ‘doing’ and more ‘being’.  If anyone is going to ‘do’ anything to you, it is the forest.  The Guide just opens the door for whatever medicine the forest has for you to discover for yourself.  The potential is there for nature to change the way you think or feel about things, if you are open to slowing down and listening.  To help you on your reflective journey, you will have the opportunity to share what you are noticing in nature, with the other participants on a Guided walk.  You can even enjoy nature therapy on your own, at your preferred pace, in your own backyard.  We believe you are the expert in your own life.  Nature is a powerful friend in discovering your true nature.  We don’t need to ‘do’ anything to you.

3.  Nature Therapy is for everyone

Therapy is an activity that is designed to have ‘therapeutic’ benefits.  ‘Therapeutic’ is defined as “having a good effect on the body or mind; contributing to a sense of well-being.”  Nature therapy is an experience that brings a huge range of scientifically proven benefits to your health and wellbeing.  That’s good for everyone, not just for people who are unwell.  I’m a big believer in disease prevention and in that vain, nature therapy should be part of everyone’s daily lifestyle, along with sensible eating and exercise.

 

Let’s normalise therapy, so everyone wants to do it.  Tell your friends ‘you’re getting your daily dose of nature therapy’.  It’s the most natural thing in the world you can do.  I mean ‘be’.

Lucy is a Certified Guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  She offers Guided Nature Therapy Walks in the Nambucca Valley and Coffs Harbour region.

Nature and the Imagination: Partners in Relaxation and Mindfulness

I am wondering about the power of nature imagery as a tool for relaxation.  Not everyone has access to beautiful landscapes or nature at their back door.  Access to the outdoors may be limited by mobility or circumstances.  Some of us live in cities where green space is lacking.  Recent studies show that prisoners watching nature documentaries are less aggressive and violent, so we know that one doesn’t need to actually be outside to receive the healing benefits of nature.

I am thinking about a refugee whom I support on Nauru in indefinite detention, who is unable to get outside due to chronic pain and continuing trauma.  He recalls fond memories of being a lifeguard on a beach before the detention centre was closed and all services were withdrawn from the island.  I have been trying to work with him to visualise that special beach in his mind.  This is challenging given the circumstances he finds himself, in chronic pain and confined to his room.

I think there is real value in present moment situations of chronic stress, depression or anxiety, to call upon nature as our friend to induce a state of relaxation.   To bring a sense of calm to the amygdala, activated by the sympathetic nervous system.  To reduce the negative effects of rumination on mood and wellbeing.  To open up a space to breathe while the unpleasant feelings pass.

We know that the brain cannot tell the difference between sitting in real nature or imagining a landscape in our mind.  The same physiological and psychological benefits of stress reduction are experienced in both of these situations.  So just by thinking about your favourite safe place in nature is enough to produce the required relaxation response.

Here are some simple instructions for a Tree Visualisation meditation, I gave recently at a Nature Therapy talk I did with cancer patients.  Another option is to have a basket of nature objects such as shells, stones, pine cones, leaves, feathers, gum nuts and other interesting objects.  Just holding one of these treasures in your hands with eyes closed, eliciting all the senses to engage with it, can bring forth a range of mindful responses.  Both of these activities elicit strong memories for people, of places they have been before, of experiences they have had and of traditions or rituals held precious.  I watch their faces as anxiety or fear is replaced by instant comfort and joy.

As quickly as the stress response is triggered, the brain has the power to bring a state of relaxation and calm to us.  Nature and the imagination are perfect partners to try this out for yourself!

3 Reasons Why You Should Go Forest Bathing

First of all, you might be wondering what exactly is forest bathing?

Forest bathing is a nature connection practice inspired by the Japanese where it is called Shinrin Yoku.

It’s not about getting wet.

The idea is to fully immerse yourself in nature and to bathe all your senses (more than 12 of them!).

Put simply, it is about taking a slow mindful walk in nature, breathing in the forest air, sitting and observing, and developing an emotional connection to the forest.  It is different from hiking, where the pace is faster and you miss a lot of what is going on around you.  It is also different from a naturist walk, where you might be identifying and naming species of fauna or flora.

A Forest Bathing walk covers less than a kilometre usually over two or three hours.  Its aim is to help you slow down and take a break from the stresses of daily life, and to appreciate things that can only be noticed when moving slowly.    Some people describe it like doing meditation or mindfulness in nature.

So now that we know what it is.  Why on earth would we want to do it?

1.  Forest Bathing is Part of Our True Nature

Humans evolved out of forests.   Our species spent millions years of in development within these ecosystems.  Then our world experienced rapid industrialisation and we moved into cities.  While genetically our bodies are optimized for the forest, we are now trying to survive in the busy, stressful conditions of modern civilization.

Our separation has caused what Richard Louv terms, ‘nature deficit disorder’.  He argues that our children are spending so much less time outdoors than previous generations, it is having a detrimental impact on their development.

Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, we must remember, we are nature.

2.  Forest Bathing Promotes our Health and Wellbeing

In the Western world, rates of mental health problems are out of control.  Over 50% of people are stressed at work.  In Australia, 1 in 5 of us will go on to experience a mental illness.  Many physical illnesses and disease can also be linked to stress as an underlying cause.

The Japanese have been studying the effects of forest bathing since the 1980’s.  What they discovered was an antimicrobial organic compound called phytonicides that are given off by evergreen trees such as pines and eucalypts.  When you breathe in phytonicides, your blood pressure drops, your cortisol level (or stress hormone) reduces and heart rate variablilty improves.  Phytoncides are immune boosters which increase the natural killer cells in our body, associated with fighting cancer.

Other research has shown that being in nature:

3.  Forest Bathing Addresses Climate Change

I know, it’s a big call.  But I firmly believe that if we are more closely connected to Mother Nature, we are more likely to want to care for and protect it.  Ours is a reciprocal relationship.  When the earth is sick, so are we (see point 2).  We need healing and so does our earth.

Humans have become so separate from nature that there has been little regard to how we treat the earth.  It has been seen as a collection of resources to be exploited for our benefit.  On a guided forest bathing walk, there is particular attention paid to the practice of reciprocity.  In supporting the development of human-nature relationships, we foster the role of humans as givers, as well as receivers.

People who engage regularly in forest bathing practices, tend to spontaneously find themselves engaging in place tending on a personal level or want to get involved in environmental activism at a macro level.

So rebuilding our intimate connection to the forest again, will ultimately lead to the healing of the planet and of course, our own health too.

If one or more of these reasons has inspired you to try forest bathing, then feel free to join the Japanese where is it called “Shinrin-yoku” (森林浴), the Germans practising “Waldtherapie”, the Koreans engaging in “Sanlimyok (산림욕)” and of course, the Australians, Americans and Europeans, where we use the terms “nature and forest therapy”.

If you are in the Nambucca Valley or Coffs Coast region, you can join me on your very own private Nature therapy walk.  Or you can find other Certified guides in Australia here and elsewhere in the world here.

Happy Forest Bathing!

5 Intentional Ways to Bring Nature Therapy Indoors

After three days of constant rain, I feel myself starting to go a little ‘cray cray’.  I miss my daily walk up the country road where I live.  Not surprisingly, I come down with a cold and by day three it turns into a headache.   Does this happen to you?  After days of not venturing outside, your health starts to deteriorate?

It makes a lot of sense, given that being in nature or green spaces is scientifically proven to promote good physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

Don’t despair.   I have some tips for bringing the benefits of nature indoors, so you can enjoy the sensory experience even when stuck inside.

1. Pot up the pesky weed and bring it inside.

Plants are not only a visually pleasing and calming addition to your home, but can be a great source of air purification. Two of the best plants to remove indoor toxins and chemicals are Mother in Laws tongue (a weed in the garden) and the Peace Lily.  With increased oxygen levels in your home, you will also breathe easier.
Houseplants also reduce the incidence of dry skin, colds, sore throats and dry coughs.  Put a plant on your desk to give your eyes a rest from your computer screen, boost concentration and be more productive.   One study showed that hanging out with indoor plants can increase memory retention up to 20 percent.  Weird but true.

2. Knock on Wood.

A lot of research has shown that using wood indoors in the form of furniture, fittings and features helps us to relax.  Simply running your fingers across a wooden benchtop can calm your nervous system, lower your heart rate and reduce brain activity, promoting an instant soothing effect.  The smell of naturally dried wood has a similar effect and can be replicated by spraying some essential oils such as cedarwood, siberian fir or eucalyptus around your home.  Always choose naturally dried wood products, not heat treated wood for your home as the aromas produce very different results.  A good excuse to treat yourself to a new chopping board!

3. Create a nature table.

Dig out that shell collection in your bathroom, then go gather some stones, pine cones, feathers, or other forest finds that bring you pleasure. Not just for kids, a nature table or basket is a good ‘go to’ to distract us when feeling stressed, anxious or depressed.  In this situation, pick up something that attracts your attention, find a place to sit, and just explore this treasure with your sense of touch, smell, hearing and sight.  Notice how this feels in your body.  Notice what memories arise for you.   Does this natural object have a story to tell?  Allow yourself time to be mindful and present.  Let feelings arise and fall away.  Just notice without judgement.

4. Uber some fresh cut flowers.

There isn’t a human being around that doesn’t get pleasure from admiring and smelling cut flowers.  But did you know that flower arrangements also offer physical benefits too?  Simply looking at fresh flowers in a vase has been shown to decrease the sympathetic nervous system response to stress and increase physiological relaxation responses.  A similar result is experienced when smelling floral essential oils, inducing relaxation and comfort.  So go pick a wild bunch and knock yourself out.

5. Bring nature imagery inside.

This is a great one, particularly if you live in an apartment in the city, or have very little green space around where you live.  Science has shown that showing prisoners photos and videos of forests, glaciers and waterfalls reduces tension, improves sleep and results in less violent angry outbursts.
Install some nature artwork, change your screensaver to a majestic landscape or watch a nature documentary.  Or simply close your mind and put yourself in your favourite natural landscape.  The brain doesn’t know the difference between real life and mindful imagery.  You get similar mental health benefits either way!

So if you’re stuck indoors, know that nature with all its healing properties is there for you.  Go out there and invite it in.  Do it mindfully with intention and purpose.

You might like to also read:   5 Nature Therapy Habits You Can Start Today

For more quick and easy Nature Therapy practices you can incorporate into your day, sign up to my Newsletter and I will send you my free e-book featuring the 21 Day Nature Therapy Challenge.  That’s 21 days of Nature Therapy ideas to help you develop a healthy new habit.

References:

Miyazaki, Y. (2018).  Shinrin-yoku: the Japanese way of forest bating for health and relaxation. Octopus Publishing Group, London.
Rokas, L. (2017).  ‘NASA Reveals A List Of The Best Air-Cleaning Plants For Your Home’ at https://www.boredpanda.com/best-air-filtering-houseplants-nasa/
University of Utah, ‘Nature Imagery Calms Prisoners’, https://phys.org/news/2017-08-nature-imagery-calms-prisoners.html

5 Nature Therapy Habits You Can Start Today

Want to spend more time in nature?  Well if you need an excuse, here’s one.  Spending more time mindfully in the outdoors will boost your immune system, take away your stress, help you sleep better and boost your creativity.

With the explosion of scientific research on the benefits of being in nature for mental health and wellbeing, you really can’t afford to not go outdoors.  Here are five quick and easy ways to include more nature in your day.

1. Take your lunch break. Outside.

Too many of us work through our lunch break at work, either because that’s what everyone else does and we want to fit in, or we just don’t have time.  Well, the truth is you will have a more productive afternoon if you give your brain a break.  So turn off the computer, leave your devices behind and take your lunch to the park.  Leave work problems at work; they will still be there when you get back.  Sit and observe what is going on around you, breath the fresh air, listen to the birds.  Return to your desk feeling refreshed and ready to tackle that To Do List.

2.  Start a Sit Spot practice. Outside.

A Sit Spot is a spot in nature to simply connect, relax and observe.  The ideal sit spot is in a natural area where two ecosystems meet, such as the edge where a meadow meets a forest.   Choose a place you can visit frequently without too much effort, even if it is less than ideal.  Your backyard can make a great sit spot.

Sit still and quietly, so that birds and animals nearby get past the initial alarm they feel when a human shows up.  The longer and more often you visit, the more you’ll experience.   The local animals will get to know you and become more accepting of your presence.

Clear your mind.  Do nothing.  Just notice.

3.  Make a natural brew. And drink it outside.

Growing your own food is a great way to develop your connection with nature.  Start by growing a few herbs in pots to make refreshing teas.

Treat yourself to a natural herbal brew once a day.  Enjoy the pleasure of interacting with the plant using all your senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing and bodily awareness, then go ahead and harvest a few leaves.

Find a place in your backyard to sit and enjoy your tea.  At first, explore the tea without tasting by using your other senses.  Then take a sip of the tea and explore its flavour and texture.  Drink a full cup and notice its effect on you over the remainder of the day.

4.  Do your exercise. Outside. 

 Apart from saving a lot of money on gym fees, exercising outside exposes you to the sounds of the leaves rustling in the trees, the feeling of fresh crisp air on your skin and the sense of spaciousness.

Rewild your body through real and practical natural movements like running, walking, leaping, dancing, throwing, balancing, crawling, climbing and hunting.  Moving the way our ancestors did promotes strong bone growth, natural conditioning and mental fitness.
Incorporate a way to get to work without using the car.

5.  Walk with your shoes off. Outside.

Once a day, take off your shoes and observe what it feels like to be connected to the earth. Bring the focus of your attention to the souls of your feet.  Step slowly and intentionally noticing the effect of contact on your body.

The earth is endowed with electrons which are absorbed through your feet.  There is evidence showing this grounding practice is good for your physical health like improving your sleep and reducing pain and inflammation.  Our great ancestors never wore shoes and they were a pretty healthy mob.

You might also like to read:   5 Intentional Ways to Bring Nature Therapy Indoors.

For more quick and easy Nature Therapy practices you can incorporate into your day, sign up to my Newsletter and I will send you my free e-book featuring the 21 Day Nature Therapy Challenge.  That’s 21 days of Nature Therapy ideas to help you develop a healthy new habit.

Riding out the Waves of Emotion with and in Nature

What would it be like if we responded to perceived ‘negative’ feelings in the same way we responded to ‘perceived’ positive feelings?  You know the feelings I’m talking about; the ones that make our body feel uncomfortable.  Anger, sadness, grief, guilt, pain, hurt, shame, jealousy and the like.   Growing up we learn to push these feelings away, ignore them, get over them, put a lid on them or deny them.  In fact, society expects us to.  And if we can’t, then we are told to go to a counsellor to learn how to, because there must be something wrong with us.

What if instead we were to normalise these feelings, rather than to see them as abnormal or bad?  After all, it’s only the behaviour that accompanies these feelings that may cause a problem, not the feeling itself.   Somewhere along the line society has labelled emotions ‘negative’ and ‘positive’.  The so named ‘negative’ ones we want to avoid.  The ‘positive’ ones we crave more of.  We should to be happy all the time, right?

What if we were instead to ride through the wave of perceived ‘negative’ emotion, like a piece of driftwood that rides the ocean currents, knowing eventually the rough and tumble will be over and it will wash up on the shore, ready to dry out and fulfil its potential in the sun?

Nature has much to teach us about living with our emotions, just as nature is a stimulus for experiencing emotion.  Nature shares with us her awesome presence and we experience feelings of awe and wonder staring at a sky filled with millions of stars.  We dwell in delight and joy at the sound of birdsong or a fleeting visit from a timid animal in the forest.  We are wrapped up in happiness and excitement as we discover unexplored, beautiful places that take our breath away.   Our bodies respond to these sensory experiences in pleasurable ways.  We are totally present in the here and now, relishing in the feeling of the moment.

The skill of being mindful in nature can be applied to all our emotions, not just the ones that give us sensations of comfort.  Nature provides some clues about this.  A fire sweeping through the bush is horrifying and scary.  Trees do not enjoy having their leaves stripped bare or bark scarred.  But they stand there, remaining steadfast.  They ride it out.  They slow down their breathing and conserve their energy.  Trees have learnt how to protect themselves from past experience by growing thick bark.  Eventually, the smoke clears, the rains come, and seeds burst forth in regrowth.

What if we were to sit with our emotion in the moment and bring the same kind of awareness to our experience, as we do with ‘positive’ emotions?  To sit and dwell in the pit of crappiness, to bring awareness to the tightness in our stomach, to be accepting of our vulnerability, to notice the change in sensations as the feeling eventually passes.

What if we were to treat our emotions like a friend to get to know rather than an enemy to run away from.  With curiosity, get to know its habits, its likes, its dislikes.  If you can recognise the signs of its arrival, you can be prepared, and find a place to sit and ride it out (preferably in nature which has immediate calming and relaxation effects).

Indigenous peoples do not push their grief away or hide it or try to move through it quickly.  They spend many days or weeks, sometimes months expressing their sorrow after the passing of loved ones.  They feel it shifting through their bodies as they dance and sing to the natural rhythms of the earth.

Experiencing and sitting with the full gamut of emotions is what it means to be human.

For those that have experienced trauma, the experience of sitting with emotions can be much more difficult.  Our response, driven by the brain’s need to protect us, might shut our body down completely so we don’t have to feel at all, or help us get ready to fight or run away from a perceived threat.  This is where nature’s healing powers can really do its work.  When uncomfortable or painful feelings come to the fore, nature provides the distraction needed to calm our over-reactive limbic system.  Taking some time to sit in green space with the sun on your face, the breeze drifting over your skin or the grass beneath your feet, is the first step to retraining your brain through a mindfulness practice.  Building up the muscles in your brain to bring awareness to your felt sense, slowly makes space for the more uncomfortable feelings to be explored in small steps over time.  Sometimes a support person or counsellor is needed to guide this process.

Every feeling we have is normal.  They are part of this journey called life.  They come and go.  Even those that are a result of traumatic experience can be healed, through a practice of mindfulness in nature.

Be gentle on yourself.  Sit with your emotions.  All of them.  Breathe through them.  Notice their passing.

Nature is brave enough to do it.  Humans are nature, so we can too.

Nature Connection for Beginners – 30 Day Challenge

Image: Kelly Ferris

There is a mountain of evidence telling us that 30 minutes a day in nature has enormous benefits for our health and wellbeing.  But who has time to find an extra half hour every day to spend outside, right?

Well, if you are SERIOUS about making a POSITIVE DIFFERENCE to your life without it becoming an onorous task, especially if you know nothing about the therapeutic benefits of a ‘green prescription’, then this 30 day challenge is FOR YOU.  There are no real rules just very simple invitations for you to take up if you so wish, and if an invitation doesn’t fit for you, there are plenty of other practices you can do instead.  Failure is not an option because you choose to participate at a level that suits you.

Here’s how it works.  Each day during April, we will issue an invitation to help you (re)connect with the natural world, ignite your senses and induce mindfulness.  It will be simple, achievable and above all relaxing.  All you need to get started is just 5 minutes a day and accessibility to a green space such as your backyard garden or local park.  We will slowly work up to the optimal 30 minutes a day by Day 30, maximising the benefits for your body, mind and spirit.

They say it takes three weeks to develop a new habit.  You’ll be surprised how easy it is to incorporate nature connection into your busy day.  We guarantee it won’t be another thing to do on your task list.  You will want to do it!

And if you’re still not convinced, here are 10 reasons why this challenge is worth taking on.

  1. Improve your short term memory
  2. Restore your mental energy
  3. Relieve stress
  4. Reduce inflammation
  5. Improve vision
  6. Improve your concentration
  7. Think clearer and more creatively
  8. Boost immune system
  9. Improve mental health, reduce anxiety and depression
  10. Live longer

Using the words of one of my recent nature therapy walk participants, “I would say it is something that needs to be experienced, rather than spoken about.”  I will be writing more about the scientific benefits in future blogs, but I can’t wait to hear about your experience and what you notice.

So what are you waiting for?  Sign up now for the “Nature Connection for Beginners – 30 Day Challenge”.  To receive your daily invitation beginning April 1, join our Facebook Event or follow me on Instagram.

“Why I love Trees”:  My Journey of Nature Connection

Today is ‘International Day of Forests’.  It is also the last day of my six month practicum of training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  Very soon I will be a Certified Guide.  In the last week I’ve been reflecting on this journey and how this all come about.

I think it all starts back in my childhood when I spent most hours outside on the farm in country Victoria.  I have fond memories of the vege garden, looking after animals, bike riding on country roads and driving the tractor for dad.  I didn’t spend much time inside, preferring to generally wander the paddocks amusing myself, kicking field mushrooms or throwing cow pats like discuses. I used to spend hours lying on a big branch in an old gum tree, making up stories in my head about the creatures that lived there.   Nature was my playground.

I’ve always loved playing in trees.

As you do, I left home at 21 thinking there was something better.  I got married young, had a family, bought my first house, travelled overseas and moved to a big city to get a degree and pursue a career.  It was about accumulating lots of stuff.  But Brisbane got crowded and I yearned to get back to a quieter life, so went back to Darwin 11 years ago with my beautiful family in tow.

I was drawn into bushwalking, taking up invitations to hike with friends in Kakadu.  I heard about permaculture and joined a community garden.  I also had the privilege of being out on country with Aboriginal Elders on the Tiwi Islands and an outstation in NE Arnhemland, where I felt, smelt, sensed and heard stories about their human-nature spiritual connection.

Hiking the Jatbula Trail near Katherine in 2017.

I can now appreciate how lucky I was to have been so close to nature as a child, as I find myself coming back around to many of the practices that kept me grounded and healthy.

Over the years while practising social work on the Tiwi Islands, I came to learn about narrative therapy and a groupwork methodology called the Tree of Life.  After sharing these ideas with some of the Tiwi Elders, I came to realise the power of the tree metaphor in helping Aboriginal people tell their problem stories in ways that were non-shaming and safe, as well as strong stories about healing from the ‘storms’ of their lives, working together like a forest.  I discovered that yarning about problems using nature metaphors helps to integrate trauma experiences without retraumatising people.  We used these ways of yarning in counselling, groupwork and family healing bush camps.  I also write a children’s therapeutic book called ‘The Life of Tree’ to help Aboriginal kids open up about their experience of violence in families.

Trees have become important metaphors in my work too.

In 2013, I caught an early diagnosis of thyroid disease and was told I would eventually have to go on medication.  Not accepting this fate, I turned to natural medicine for answers – taking supplements to make up for our mineral-depleted soils, cutting out foods that were contributing to my body’s autoimmune response, quitting my job to de-stress, joining the ‘slow living’ movement, and taking up meditation (although I struggled to make this a daily practice).  By 2016 I had no evidence that Hashimotos disease had ever been part of my life.  Once again, nature had shown me the way.

In the background, I had a growing sense of unease, helplessness and despair at the state of the planet.  I mulled about the future my children would have to deal with and noticed the global trends in increased anxiety, depression and suicide in young people coping with the pressure of modern, domesticated life.  I read about ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a result of children’s technology use and the detrimental affect excessive screen time was having on their development.   Something has to change and quickly.  The earth does not have the luxury of time if we are to repair the damage we’ve done, and at what cost to our own physical and mental health?

Fast forward to April 2017 when I find myself in the wild West of Tasmania.  My girlfriend had to pull out of our planned trip at the last minute because of her mum’s terminal illness.  I’d never travelled on my own before, and I was constantly thinking about my safety out in the wilderness walking alone.  But by the end of my holiday, I had come to enjoy my own company so much, that it took me a while to be around people again.  I was also in awe of the beautiful old growth forests that boasted trees that were more than four hundred years old.  Nature has always been important to my own growth, health and wellbeing.  But this experience took me to a level of nature connection and a sense of freedom, that I’d never experienced before.  I wanted more.  It was shortly after this that I heard about Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) and decided to train as a Guide in September 2017.

Learning how to be on my own in nature in Tasmania’s wild West.

I experienced an amazing week-long intensive immersed in the Yarra Ranges engaging in mindful walks in nature every day.  NFT is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.  While learning the skills of helping others slow down using intentional invitations to connect with nature and ignite the senses, I learnt how to slow myself down even more.  Believe me, it is intensive.  Practising mindfulness every day takes discipline and practice when you are the kind of person that always has multiple projects on the go and a mind that never rests.  After a week, I just wanted to run or go for a long hike.  No more slow!  But seriously.  This is the practice that is going to sustain my health and wellbeing long into the future.  And there are a lot of scientific studies coming out now to prove it.  For me, it’s about finding the balance between living and working in the ‘real world’ and engaging with the ‘natural world’.  As Richard Louv says “The more connected to technology we become, the more nature we need to achieve a natural balance.”

Me and my fellow Guides during our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

Over the past six months I’ve learnt a lot about myself – about my ‘edges’ and how to dissolve irrational fears; about how to let go of agendas and trust nature will lead the way; what it means to live out your life according to your values and beliefs even when the chips are down; what it feels like to be part of a community of like-minded folk who also care about the planet and each other; the relief of discovering the beauty in humanity; and finding hope again after experiencing the resilience of nature.  I have a long way to go but I’m feeling much more connected to the more-than-human world than ever before.   On one of my recent Nature and Forest Therapy walks someone said ‘I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation for years, but I’ve never experienced anything like this before.’  I know right?  I’ve been there.  And now as an NFT Guide, I get to witness the personal profound insights others gain on my three hour slow wanders in nature.  I’m also buoyed by the possibility of people being inspired to take action against climate change and in their personal daily habits, because of their renewed sense of connection and care for the planet.  NFT has the power to do this too!

Guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk in Nambucca State Forest.

As I come to the end of my practicum I feel incredibly grateful for the support of my mentors, friends and family, the resources that allow me to follow my heart and dreams, and the start I had in life back on the farm that sowed the seeds of nature connection.

Happy ‘International Day of Forests’ to you.  Do your body, mind and spirit a favour.  Get outside, play, explore, skip, make art using nature’s treasures, gaze at water, climb a tree.  Don’t think about it too much.  Follow your instincts.  And when the forest speaks to you….listen.

Love yourself First:  A Valentine’s Day Message

I recently had the opportunity to go out on country with a respected Gumbaynggirr man living and working in the Bellinger Valley.  I’ve come to know him in a short time as a storyteller, photographer, culture man and healer.

Image by Bernard K Edwards, Never Never Creek in the Promised Land

Early in a conversation with him, I commented that one must learn to love themselves first, before they can love others.  Later that day, we are sitting on a fallen tree across the Never Never River in the beautiful Promised Land, looking out over refreshing, crystal clear water gently flowing over the river rocks.  I am reflecting on my happy life and questioning why I should be so lucky to have things always fall my way, while other people are not so lucky.  I’ve never had anything traumatic occur that has changed the course of my life, in fact, quite the opposite – I’ve been able to achieve all the goals I have been able to set myself, without any barriers or hiccups.  Putting aside the fact that my white skin automatically gives me privileges over other cultural groups, I attributed my “success” in life to my parents that had provided a safe, loving, healthy home, surrounded by nature and fresh air on Victoria’s farming country, protected from the worries of the world.  My companion politely pulls me up “do you not think, that YOU have had something to do with it?” and points out the contradiction with my earlier statement – YOU must love yourself before you can love others.  He goes on to share that once we have left our mother’s arms, we are out on our own.  As adults, we are responsible for our own decisions.  The choices we make in life are ours alone and cannot be attributed to our parents.

I think about this in silence as the water trickles below my feet and a tiny blue bird visits a nearby rock.  It would not have been possible to learn how to love myself without the love of my parents to show me that I am worth loving.  But I get his point.  There comes a point as adults when we have to take responsibility for our own choices in life.  This is what it means to love and respect yourself.  To know that YOU are truly worthy of setting the course of your life.  And no one else can do that for you.

I peer into the reflection of the water now cooling my feet.  Water knows how to flow.  It learnt this from mother earth since the beginning of time.  The fallen tree does not prevent the water from doing what it wants to do.  It finds a way to flow through, around, up and over.  And new life springs forth from the rotting tree.

As you reflect on the love that others have provided you this Valentine’s Day, consider what nature can teach you about loving yourself?  What choices will you take today, on the path towards love?  Make a decision today, knowing that the universe has your back!

Image by Bernard K Edwards