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!