Earth Matters

A Good Dose of Nature

Thirty centimeters of snow in Toronto. What a good excuse to go outside and play! This past weekend my friends and I travelled up to the cottage for a good dose of nature. In true Canadian style we set out Saturday morning for cottage country with our Tim Hortons coffees to clear off the frozen lake for an epic game of pond hockey. The trip also included hiking the un-plowed road to and from the cottage which was without running water or electricity. As I looked up at the star filled sky Saturday night I knew it was the perfect two day escape from my normal world overloaded with digital information and media.

In the winter it can be especially difficult to make time for nature. But the many physical and mental health benefits are worth the extra effort. Studies have found that nature can have positive effects on the brain such as better memory, lower stress and improved mental outlook.

One study used sophisticated brain-imaging techniques to show that when healthy adults view nature scenes rich in vegetation, areas of the brain associated with emotional stability, empathy, and love are more active. In contrast, viewing scenes of the built urban environment produced a significant increase in activity of the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear and stress. (see link below)

In another study, a 50-minute walk in nature improved memory and focus by about 20 per cent, while walking in a busy urban environment didn’t significantly improve memory. The winter walkers didn’t enjoy the walk as much as the summer walkers, but they still received the same memory benefits. (see link below)

Elements of nature such as trees, leaves and water are considered to be “softly fascinating” meaning there is just the right amount of stimulation so as not to be too boring or require heavy concentration, but allow a person to de-focus and self reflect in a natural environment. Natural spaces have been found to encourage fantasy and role-play, reasoning and observation in children. Several studies show that children’s games are more creative in green places than in concrete playgrounds.

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder could also benefit from more nature time. ADHD, a growing concern of parents, occurs in 5 -10 % of Canadian children. Research has found that when children with ADHD spend more time in nature, symptoms improve significantly, with increased benefits seen in more green locations. Also, depression and anxiety disorders are less prevalent in youth who have greater amounts of nature in their living environments. (see link  below)

A childhood immersed in nature can also foster a love of the natural world and fuel ones desire to protect it. One article suggests that without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection. (see link below)

But the sad thing is that our children’s engagement with nature is fading fast. In the US, in just six years (1997-2003) children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. And in the UK, 11-15-year-olds now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen. Author Richard Louv in his award-winning book “Last Child in the Woods” talks about how kids today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest—but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move. He has coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the health issues linked to the modern divide between children and the outdoors. (see link below)

Next time it snows, let it be an excuse to get us and our children outside, go tobogganing, build a fort, learn to skate or cross country ski and reap the benefits.

Last Child in the Woods

Your brain on nature

Replacing screen time with green time is good for kids

Sharpen your memory with a simple walk in nature

If children lose contact with nature they won’t fight for it

About the author


Laura Berndt

Laura Berndt (Hough) is the Manager of Energy & Sustainability in Plant Operations at Sunnybrook.