“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as the sunshine into the trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like Autumn leaves”
– John Muir
Humans are drawn to nature and comforted by natural settings. If you’ve ever found yourself staring longingly at a picture of a beach or been transfixed by a scene of the forest, it’s an example of your inner spirit seeking to align itself with the core of its nature. We evolved as part of this planet – just as much connected to Earth as the flowers, plants and trees – and our body, mind and spirit are happiest when they remain attuned to more natural settings.
“Time in green space is essential to children’s mental and physical health,” notes psychologist Susan Linn. (Hellmich, 2012) A growing body of research is showing that experiences with nature are an important component of optimal physical and mental health. Deborah Franklin writes that “just three to five minutes spent looking at views dominated by trees, flowers or water can begin to reduce anger, anxiety and pain to induce relaxation, according to various studies of healthy people that measured physiological changes in blood pressure, muscle tension, or heart and brain electrical activity.” (Franklin, 2012, p. 24)
This chapter is filled with ways to use nature as a tool for healing. It covers the therapeutic value of nature and discusses ways we can harness this power in everyday life, as well as projects you can do with the kids that utilize nature as a tool to teach valuable lessons about life and adversity. Even if you can’t get away to the countryside, there are ways to utilize the healing power of nature within the confines of a vacant city field or urban park.
Getting the most out of nature: Basic guidelines for nature therapy
A) While nature pictures, paintings and photographs can spruce up our environment, there is no substitution for the real thing. Looking at pictures of nature or viewing nature programs on television does boost our mental and physical health, but the benefits are far fewer and less robust than the real thing. Recent studies have even indicated that one source of health benefits might be phytoncides – natural scents released by plants and bacteria in the soil that boost the immune system. So the biggest benefits come from getting up close and personal with nature.
B) When you can get away, several long weekends or day-long excursions in the wilderness throughout the year are likely to be more beneficial than one long extended two-week journey.
C) Head for the water. Perhaps because we’re biologically programmed to seek out water sources, natural settings within a close proximity to water, or nature scenes with water in them, tend to produce the largest improvements to mood. Walking along natural bodies of water can be especially soothing.
D) Studies show that people still get some boost from time spent outdoors even when they don’t particularly enjoy it; for instance, taking a walk on a cold winter day. So while you don’t want to create extra anxiety for yourself by forcing the family on a walk while they whine the whole way, you should try to make a point of spending some time outdoors even when the circumstances aren’t ideal.
E) Avoid distractions by leaving devices in the car. Walking through the forest with Puff Daddy blaring on your iPod sort of defeats the purpose.
F) If you’re going on a nature excursion, ask your kids if they’d like to bring a friend, which will help them enjoy the experience and get more out of it. “When it’s just one family, the kids stick close to the parents and whine and complain,” says Richard Louv, who founded the Children & Nature Network. “But the minute several families get together, the kids are off on their own and playing hide and seek, independent of the parents.” (Szabo, 4-14-2011)
G) Try to take up hobbies that get you and the kids in touch with nature. Painting sessions, scavenger hunts, fishing, hiking; any hobby that gets them outdoors will reduce overall stress. Encourage them to touch the trees and play in the dirt in the forest. Regularly ask them: “What does that smell like?” pointing to various leaves, trees, and plants, so that they get in the habit of smelling vegetation, which will expose them to phytoncides.
H) Go on nature walks. Research has found that leisurely walks in the forest yield a 12.4% average decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, and a 7% decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4% decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8% decrease in heart rate compared to urban walks. Participants also report better moods and lower anxiety afterwards. (Reynolds, 2012)
If you can’t get away to the countryside, try to choose a path around your neighborhood or in your community that has lots of trees and perhaps even takes you by a creek, stream or river.
“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks.”
– John Muir
You can find instructions for specific nature therapy exercises in our eBook: Child Trauma & Recovery. It’s just $9.99 and all proceeds from your purchase go to help kids in need. (ComingSoon)