Inner Adventure Guide

The Importance of Being Connected with Nature

Liz your Inner Adventure Guide in the rain

Providing opportunities for students to interact with nature has been proven to be an important part of our educational system. Exposing children to the outdoors early on has been shown to help them learn better once they get into the classroom. Children also receive fewer behavioral referrals at school when they have a natural view as opposed to a man-made view. Additionally, nature exploration appears to reverse the disruptive impacts of Attention Deficit Disorder by captivating and holding children’s attention, reducing stress, and promoting self-discipline. Outdoor learning can also strengthen the connection between students and teachers and reduce conflict among peers. Networking at workshops, reading studies on this relationship, and talking with professionals in the outdoor education and adventure therapy fields will help teachers garner inspiration and ideas to enhance their curriculum and spur their students’ emotional and academic growth.

Numerous studies have shown that our increasing confinement indoors is making us more stressed, depressed, and less productive, both at work and in our personal lives. Other studies reveal that depression is often linked to physical illnesses and that we heal faster when we can see trees and grass from our hospital bed. Research also indicates that five minutes of physical activity in natural environments—such as a playground, park, or beach—can significantly improve our mood and can increase our self-esteem and motivation. Furthermore, connecting with nature complements therapy for individuals with mental health issues. In addition to its benefits to mental health, routinely spending time outdoors offers many benefits to our physical and social health as well.

Ways to Connect with Nature

Wherever you live, you can make contact with the natural world. In all areas, it contributes to wellbeing. So, when you are next on a walk or feeling hungry, bored, or simply looking out of the window, pause, take a deep breath, and look or listen carefully for the small signs of nature around you. Perhaps there is a cloud or blue sky above the buildings, or the faint murmur of the wind or another natural sound. There may be a tree with the first leaves or flowering branch shining in a red sunset, and a pigeon or other bird looking for a perch. Or feel a fly or midge landing on your skin and moving filament antennae, or a midge (perhaps in its final mid-fall) silhouetted against the curtain or wall.

Fortunately, we can all get out into nature—whether that means heading out into the countryside, visiting a park or wildlife reserve, enjoying a view from a balcony, or feeling our connection to nature through more everyday encounters with animals and plants that live among us in cities and towns. By building moments of contact with nature into everyday activities, we can derive all the cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural benefits that a closer bond with the natural world can provide. Likewise, such everyday encounters are an important supplement to the far-sighted environmental policies essential for ensuring the sustainable future of both nature and humanity.

Physical and Mental Health Benefits

There are well-established urban-rural disparities in physical activity, with rural residents exhibiting higher rates of physical activity and lower obesity prevalence compared to urban residents. One factor associated with these differences may be the availability and accessibility to nature, which in turn influences engagement in outdoor physical activity. Positively influencing how we feel is another health benefit gained by contact with nature. The role that nature has on our mental health and well-being has been robustly demonstrated and subject to reviews and analysis. The human fascination with nature spans across centuries and various cultures and societies. Two recent reports on the Nature of Americans and Nature in the American Context show that Americans consistently recognize the positive influence that nature has on our mental well-being. High levels of well-being in nature are consistent with the positive feelings and sense of affiliation that people have with nature. Furthermore, interacting with nature can help maintain and build social relationships that contribute to the physical, mental, and social well-being of people. For example, visiting natural settings reduces social isolation, augments the development of social capital, and promotes team spirit, improving well-being in people.

Proximity to nature contributes to our physical well-being in a variety of ways, including by offering opportunities for physical activity as well as health-restoring relaxation. While individuals may choose to engage with nature for physical health benefits through recreational or fitness activities, simple proximity to and interaction with nature can produce a range of restorative health benefits. The considerable increase in urban greenspaces in response to the COVID-19 pandemic reflects the robust evidence that access to nature can enhance individual health, and these types of greenspace enhancements to urban environments should be continued beyond the current crisis.

Environmental Awareness and Conservation

Individuals who feel more connected to nature, due to frequent visits to natural settings, seem to also develop greater awareness and concern for the environment, promoting pro-conservation behaviors and engagement in climate-change mitigation and energy-saving actions. Thus, connection to nature positively influences environmental awareness and attitudes. People who spend a substantial time in natural environments not only report feeling connected to nature but also consistently worship the environment they feel connected to. This reverential respect might prompt individuals with high connection to nature to behave more responsibly in protecting the environment than individuals with low connection to nature and promotes both active and contemplative work towards safeguarding the natural world. In particular, people who feel highly connected to nature are likely to adopt pro-environment values and are more prone to behave in a pro-environmental manner.

Other studies have investigated the relationship between connection to nature and engagement in outdoor activities and their possible psychological and physical benefits. A comparison of individuals with no access, low access or regular contact with natural settings showed that the latter group reported more outdoor physical activity during the past 30 days, more physical activity during the last week, and engaging in more time spent walking, running, bicycling, and gardening in the last week. It was also shown that those respondents who spent more time in recreational outdoor activities related to physical health and well-being reported feeling more connected to nature. Several studies found that the frequency of adults’ visits to natural settings increases their mental and physical health. It was also observed that those who feel a greater connection to nature indulge more frequently in nature-based recreation activities that stress relationships with natural settings, such as running, jogging, hiking, fishing, swimming, and relaxing quality time spent outdoors. Exposure to nature seems to increase the order of physical activity in youth who spend limited time outdoors.

Enhancing Well-being and Quality of Life

Perhaps, however, the most interesting contributions to the academic field of outdoor activity have come from an academic research project that was led by this website’s patron Professor Miles Richardson. In the project, methodologies to measure and monitor the health, social, and conservation benefits of connecting to nature were developed and refined. Each of these two papers discussed findings from a secondary analysis (i.e., a meta-analysis) of project data. I like the former, which provides and summarises the theoretical context, presents PANs in full, analyses data collected from a thousand people who answered questions about their previous day and nature-related activities, demonstrates the measures’ robustness and sensitivity of changes over time, and describes the benefits of PAN values and their implications for policy and planning, conservation, and health.

There is great interest in assessing and quantifying the health and well-being benefits of connecting to nature, and much research has been undertaken. Those interested may want to look at the great work done by MIND, which lists a number of health and well-being benefits that can be experienced through outdoor activity, including feelings of vitality and energy that come with natural light, increased levels of oxygen, and the release of endorphins by the body. They also have written about the benefits of good health in relation to mental well-being, physical education and the environment, the stimulation that comes from being in a different context from usual human surroundings, the change of neural stimuli associated with nature, and increased opportunity for physical activity.

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