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Nature for the Soul

Nature for the Soul

When the deciduous or broadleaf woodlands are alive with the color of Spring and Summer, and wonderfully noisy the symphony of bird song, there is no finer place to be. As the colors of Summer pass and the days cool the woodland is wonderfully mellow, as well as breathtakingly beautiful. Even during the grey Winter months, when the ground is frozen hard and everything appears lifeless, even in these barren months the forests retain a certain beauty. As many know by instinct, science is beginning to prove: exposure to nature is beneficial to mind, body and soul! And it is especially beneficial to children.

Country Parks and wilderness areas has something to offer all the family. The gentle walks are a perfect way to start a new exercise regime, especially if your fitness levels are quite low. And the play areas offer outlets for children of all ages, helping you to see your children increase their activity levels in a fun way!

Research has shown that regular contact with nature is highly beneficial to childrens’ emotional, mental and physical development. Children with ADHD are soothed by regular contact with nature, resulting in them achieving higher levels of concentration. Nature experiences also boost children’s immune system and aid brain development: with improvements in observational skills and reasoning. In fact studies show that nature experiences better stimulate a child in all areas of development when contrasted to indoor experiences. Furthermore research seems to suggest the greener the better!

In new research Dr. Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University has found “Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development.” The thinking behind the theories is that nature, is full of interesting stimuli that trigger our involuntary attention, we cannot help but notice the beauty of our environment. However, our brain is not laboring to notice these things, unlike a city where we are constantly concentrating on our surroundings, e.g. is that bus about to run me over if I cross the road! Therefore in nature our brain, although receiving stimulation, is doing so in a natural, gentle manner, without the having to make a conscious decision to do so. Thus our brain can enter a more relaxed state.

There has been an emphasis lately on the need for children to enjoy less structured play experiences in the open, and to climb trees, and to be less constrained. Children today are too insulated form “danger” and miss out on a healthy dimension to their development- that of playing free in nature! Doing so exposes them to situations in which they can learn to evaluate risk, in a way a class room is unable to replicate. Studies show that children themselves prefer to play in nature over indoor and urban settings. They associate the outdoor play in a nature environment with adventure, challenge and risk.

Children who have regular nature experiences are naturally more inclined to be proactive in their care for the environment as adults. The love of creation is instilled at an early age, and continues through to adulthood. In fact, to produce environmental responsible adults exposure to nature is essential throughout childhood. Children cannot effectively process environmental issues that are out with their sphere of experience, for example, teaching about the dangers of the destruction of the rainforest is too big for a child of even twelve years of age. The issue is too large, and can just lead to fear, and will fail to result in the child understanding their place in the problem. However, by regular exposure to nature, in the context of their lives children grow to love and appreciate nature where they are at, which grows into a more global mindset as they become adults. As Jennifer Sahn (1996) writes in the introduction to Ecophobia: “In rushing to teach them about global issues, we neglect the fact that young children have a fascination with the immediate and an undying curiosity that requires sensory rather than conceptual generalization”. Thus children develop an attitude of stewardship toward the environment.

Nature experiences do not need to be complicated affairs, involving hours of planning. It can be as simple as an impromptu walk in the park, a bug hunt in the garden. For example the other morning before breakfast my children were watching birds in the garden collect twigs and dried grass for nest building. They talked about this off and on the rest of the day, consequently this simple unplanned interaction with nature enabled me to have many discussions about birds and nesting, leading to my daughter looking up birds in a bird book and learning about how nests are built etc.

However, health and wellbeing benefits are not only for children similar results have been shown in adults when experiencing nature. The benefits are so great that some scientists even advocate the giving of “Green Prescriptions” to those who are suffering stress, depression, or have problems with anger and aggression. Studies have shown that adults suffering depression noticed decrease levels of depression and feeling less tense after a thirty minute walk in woodland, as well as experiencing increased levels of self-esteem.

Through the media we are barraged with more and more information about our need to improve our health and ways to improve the health of our children (perhaps you think this is just another article to add to the noise of people telling us what to do!). However, going on regular family trips to a local Country Park, or for city dweller there is always City Parks and Botanical Gardens, and allowing the kids to run wild, and walk through the trees is so beneficial to all the family and achieves so much, with no great changes to diet, no need to purchase an expensive piece of equipment- it is a simple step to enhance the wellbeing and health of the entire family! This is one family activity accessible to every family regardless of budget, size, or age range; and can be enjoyed by every family member. And enables children to grow to appreciate Nature.

Spring and early Summer is a wonderful time of year to visit woodland, particularly deciduous woodland, as so much is happening. The deciduous woodland is to be recommended above coniferous as they tend to have a much wider variety of species- the woodland floors of deciduous forests have much more life and a greater variety of flowers. Often coniferous forests have been highly managed by men and thus lack “soul” instead containing rows of highly regimented trees growing uniformly! Whereas deciduous forests are haphazard in their make-up. In spring the blossoms are appearing on the trees, which in Autumn will be the nuts and berries to feed the birds before the winter. The Horse-Chestnut Trees have their candle-like flowers in bloom- wonderful to think that in October these are the source of the conkers! The forest is alive with life as animals and birds raise their young. Early Summer is the time to enjoy the beautiful new green of the leaves at their absolute best.

As May approaches the woodland floor will be a see of blue as the bluebells come into season. And now is the time to listen for the sound of the woodpeckers. The fortunate and beady eyed may even spot a deer darting through the forest looking for cover!

Go to the pond and look for the frog spawn! Children love to check the progress of the spawn to tadpoles and see them metamorphosis into frogs as we go into summer!

Summer is a wonderful opportunity to picnic in the woods, or for city dwellers the local park or Botanical Gardens. During Summer the green or the grass, the trees, the plants are at an optimum, this is the time to treat your brian to the full spectrum of the color green! studies have shown that the color green has a soothing effect on the brain, so effective is calming effect of green, that prisons will paint the cells of the most violent offenders green! This is an extreme example, but we can all benefit from exposure to green, and the calming effects it can have on us and our children!

As Summer ebbs away the colors change and we come to what many believe to be the greatest time in the natural worlds calendar- Autumn! All nature readies itself for the coming winter months, and the colors of Summer-Green fade away to the riot of reds, browns, yellows, oranges. Trees are laden with bright berries, and the air is turning colder. This prime conditions for family nature walking, the kind that leaves an imprint on the mind. A glorious Autumn’s Day walk in a wood will stay with you for years, and those winter days, of cold wintery weather, confined indoors, you can draw on the memories of such days!

Make a plan for increasing your family’s exposure to nature; encourage your children to keep a nature journal, in doing so they will be more aware of nature and how it changes. Enjoy climbing trees, getting grubby, listening to the birds, smelling flowers. Be blessed by what The Great Outdoors has to offer, and let it “minister to your soul”.

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