Your Kids Need Nature, and So Do You: the Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Spending Time in Nature

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Why do we find ourselves smiling when we see the pale green of new leaves on the trees or the bright red of a fall maple? Why do we just feel better when we are out on a walk, taking in the scenery, breathing in the fresh air? It really comes down to one, simple answer that numerous studies have demonstrated: spending time in nature, specifically open, green spaces, has significant health benefits.

Stress and mental health are major concerns for many people these days. It’s not just reserved for adults, either – many children and teens have reported feeling stress and anxiety in their lives for a variety of reasons. And yet on average, kids spend only 7 minutes per day outdoors in unstructured time, while they spend 5-8 hours per day in front of screens. It’s no wonder that obesity and anxiety are growing problems among our population in general, and our young folks in particular. 

Research shows that spending time in nature helps reduce stress in measurable ways, including reduced cortisol (a hormone that indicates stress), and lowered blood pressure. These same studies show that spending time outdoors improves eyesight, focus, and short-term memory. All of these, combined with lowered stress-levels, are a recipe for better school performance.

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The idea that spending time in nature is not only beneficial, but healing, is not new. In Japan, spending time in nature with this intention of healing is called ‘forest bathing.’ It is even prescribed as a part of treatment, and as preventive medicine. Doctors in Shetland, Scotland will start prescribing spending time in nature for patients, complete with activities for each month. May activities, for example, include touching the sea, finding a bud on a tree and feeling the texture, and making a bug hotel. Those all sound like great ways to kickstart an afternoon outside!

Luckily, we Cape Codders don’t need to see a doctor in order to take these preemptive measures, and we don’t need to go to Scotland or Japan to reap the benefits! We are fortunate to have open spaces accessible to us throughout the Cape. Thanks in part to the work of the Town of Barnstable, Barnstable Land Trust and others, there are over 10,000 acres of conservation land in the seven villages of Barnstable alone. 

Here are a few May and June activities in case you are looking for some inspiration to help you take that first step out the door:

·     Take your socks and shoes off and walk through the new grass

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·      Find a fresh spring blossom and feel the petals

·      Plant something new in your yard, or in a window box or planter

·      Find somewhere to sit quietly, and then wait. How many different bird, animal, and insect noises can you hear?

·      Find a spot to observe one of the returning Osprey from a far. Are they building their nest, or hunting?

·      Take a walk along a nearby beach, and see what wildlife and plants are returning or re-growing

·      Look around your yard and spot the different plants. Can you identify them all?

·      Take a walk to the green space nearest your home and explore

·      Take a walk through a wooded area, and pay attention to the tree trunks – how many types of lichen do you see? Feel the difference in their textures

·      Explore one of the beautiful conservation areas in our town, like Crocker Neck, Bridge Creek Conservation Area, West Barnstable Conservation Area, or Eagle Pond

·      Take a guided walk with a local environmental organization, like Barnstable Land Trust

Good health and well-being may be waiting just outside your door! So instead of sinking into the couch for another marathon of your favorite show, just taking a few minutes to explore your back yard or local conservation space may not only lighten your mood, but make a difference in you and your family’s health.

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Barnstable Land Trust is a land conservation nonprofit working in the Town of Barnstable. In our 35 year history, we have conserved over 1,100 acres and helped protect thousands more. Visit our website to learn more about what we do, why we do it, and how you can be involved: www.blt.org.

 

Sources:

1.     https://www.mnn.com/health/fitness-well-being/stories/scottish-doctors-prescribe-bird-watching-walking-and-other-nature-prescriptions

a.     https://www.healthyshetland.com/site/assets/files/1178/730-1309-17-18_nature_prescriptions_calendar_4sep.pdf

2.     https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180706102842.htm

https://www.businessinsider.com/why-spending-more-time-outside-is-healthy-2017-7#outdoor-experiences-may-help-fight-depression-and-anxiety-5