The Best Way to Get the Mind Working? Get Out(side) of It! 7 Surprises about the Mind-Body-Earth Connection
The past year of our lives has been anything but normal. We have needed to adjust to new ways of living, working and socializing. For those of us with positions in education or roles in parenting, teaching and learning practices have also needed to be quickly modified.
Although we have had to undergo many changes since this new decade arrived, there is one thing that has always remained abundant and available to us: the great outdoors. There is no need to distance ourselves from Mother Nature. Spending some quality time outside in any way possible – especially during these trying times – is beneficial for us in more ways than one.
There are several perks of connecting with nature that come in addition to sheer enjoyment. Time spent outside can be replenishing, calming and even healing. Listed below are seven ways that nature takes good care of our bodies and our minds.
1. Nature helps us to focus better.
For many people of all ages, spending time in nature is therapeutic and replenishing. However, did you know that it does not just leave us feeling better – it can actually help us to be more successful in the work that we do indoors?
The attention restoration theory (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008) has been developed in research to show that a dose of nature – whether it be a hike through the trees or a simple stroll on the grass – can help us to better focus on our directed-attention tasks. It has been found that experiences involving inherently captivating matter (e.g. a sunset, a forest, or a natural body of water) allow the areas in our brains to solve complex problems to rest. As we take in the beauty of our natural world, we are unknowingly preparing ourselves to return to work with refreshed, steady minds.
As educators, we are always considering strategies to support our students to succeed. Science says that exposure to nature has been shown to reduce symptoms of ADHD (Frumkin et al., 2017; Taylor & Kuo, 2009) in children. Dedicating time to enjoy the outdoors as a class could be viewed as an inclusive practice of differentiation! It does not look the same for everyone, but allowing some exposure to nature will help your students return to their assignments refreshed and ready to learn.
2. Nature has been linked to improved creativity.
If you’ve ever struggled with procrastination, writer’s block or a general lack of inspiration, you may have discovered that it can be solved by stepping away from the computer screen into the great outdoors. This is not just a result of taking a break – a study suggests exposure to nature and disengagement from modern technology can lead to improved creativity and creative problem-solving (Atchley, Strayer, & Atchley, 2012). The issue of screen time for children is one that parents and teachers now must navigate on a regular basis. In response to a lack of options in teaching material due to COVID-19 restrictions, teachers have been leaning on technology in the classroom now more than ever. While there certainly are benefits to this, it is critical to also include enough time spent outdoors.
3. Contact with the outdoors has been connected to improved heart health, immunity, and increased energy.
Time spent outdoors is not only beneficial cognitively and emotionally– studies have shown that it also helps us in physiological ways. After all, our minds and bodies are intimately connected.
There is a link between nature exposure and cardiovascular health. The benefit of improved blood pressure and heart rate can be a result of direct physical contact with the Earth. “Grounding” or “earthing” is the act of spending time actually touching the natural world (natural sand, rock, soil or even bodies of water) and it not only contributes to good heart health, but also to better sleep, less stress (anxiety, depression, irritability) and less pain (Oschman, Chevalier., & Brown, 2015).
This practice of direct connection allows our natural electrical charges to be neutralized by the antioxidant electrons of the Earth. This has been shown to reduce pain and inflammation as well as aid in recoveries from injury or wounds, and prevent us from feeling chronically fatigued (Oschman, Chevalier., & Brown, 2015).
In addition to this phenomenon is the simple fact that more time spent outside means more of a likelihood of engagement in physical exercise of some form. As educators and parents, it is important that we model healthy lifestyle choices like these for our young ones as they grow and develop.
4. Nature decreases levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
It is no surprise that the great outdoors can help us feel calmer. In fact, having a multisensory experience with nature has been associated with decreased levels of cortisol (stress hormone), resulting in us feeling calmer, (Hedblom, et al., 2019), as well as a lessening of anxiety and depression (Mihyang, Colarelli, O’Brien, & Boyajian, 2016; Frumkin et al., 2017). For parents and teachers, this is particularly meaningful. Tending to our own mental health as well as guiding our children and youth to do the same is now more crucial than ever before. The calming effects of nature certainly can be accessed through visual stimuli, though it truly is an experience that should be practiced with our senses of smell, touch and hearing all engaged, as well.
5. Time spent exercising in nature has been associated with higher levels of self-esteem.
“Green exercise” is physical exertion in combination with exposure to the natural world. Research has shown that it offers more than just exercise alone – it decreases tension, confusion, anger and the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (Pretty, Peacock, Sellens, & Griffin, 2006). In addition to the benefits of “green exercise”, exposure to sunlight in combination with body movement increases levels of serotonin, for which a deficiency can lead to depression, anxiety, fatigue and impaired cognitive function (Mihyang et al., 2016).
Interestingly enough, this practice of “green exercise” has also been found to have a connection with positive feelings of self-esteem. In a study conducted with subjects who exercised in the presence and absence of nature scenes, it was revealed that those who exercised with pleasant views of rural scenery ended up showing positive results through questionnaires meant to reflect their moods and feelings of self-esteem (Pretty et al., 2006).
The study focuses primarily on the impact of visual stimuli from nature, which brings to mind the many schools in the world that do not have access to natural green spaces in close proximity. It turns out that just displaying images of nature in the classroom to inspire students is an excellent way to harness that natural goodness. Having indoor plants is another wonderful method of bringing nature into the school. Plants can be used for students to practice roles and responsibilities (sharing the task of watering the plants, for example), or a science lesson on plant anatomy or growth. The possibilities seem to be endless when it comes to involving Mother Nature in our pedagogical practice.
6. Nature can help to lower aggression.
There are several studies which reveal that exposure to nature reduces aggression. It has been shown that it is more likely for folks who live with more vegetation surrounding them to be more civil, less afraid and less violent (Kuo, F., & Sullivan, W., 2001).
What we need in the world is more serenity and less hostility. For many people, especially young students who are learning to articulate and regulate emotions, as well as navigate healthy expression of feelings, spending time outdoors may be a very useful tool.
7. Nature-based learning promotes a sense of community and responsibility.
Bringing students outside is a great way to encourage an awareness of the earth’s natural systems and organisms, and more importantly, that we are collectively responsible for taking good care of it. As educators, it is our responsibility to seize this opportunity for engagement in environmental education.
A nature-based, cross-curricular approach to science and social studies sets the tone for teachers to model practices that are relevant to our global and local communities, with regards to encouraging sustainability, responsibility and reciprocity with the earth. Many different places all around the world provide components of nature that can be studied or experienced by students, so that they may engage in valuable, inquiry-based lessons that are crucial for us all to learn how to help our planet thrive.
As we continue through this unexpectedly challenging year of teaching and schooling, may we remember the many different ways through which our minds and bodies are connected to nature. Whether we engage in activities outdoors for the purpose of physical activity, artistic measures, mathematics, science, environmental education, or simple enjoyment, we will benefit greatly. Nature can offer us calmness, improved concentration and health, and bring us positive feelings. With so many limitations upon us during these difficult times, let us be reminded that one of the most bountiful resources available is certainly not cancelled – all we need to do is step outside.
Guest Writer: Jaimee Gregoire is graduating in June 2021 from the Teacher Education Program at Western University in London, Ontario after two years of study. Her area of teaching is primary/junior (K-Grade 6) with a specialty in French education. Jaimee completed two Alternative Field Experiences (internships) with Embodied Learnings over the course of a year. Her contributions to our French and nature resources have been extremely valuable.
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Taylor, A.F., & Kuo, F.E. (2009). Children with attention deficits concentrate better after a walk in the park. Journal of Attention Disorders, 12(5), 402-9. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1087054708323000: