Free your mind by spending time outside

April 30th, 2019

By Heather Ray, GreenUP Water Programs Manager

Many of us, myself included, have likely spent too much time binge watching Netflix through the cold days of winter (no judgement). Now that spring has finally arrived it is hard to ignore the desire to start spending more time outside. Popular spring activities such as getting an early start to the garden, cycling to work, or taking a brisk walk are all great ways to get us outside and moving.

While the physical health benefits of getting active may seem obvious, and while spending time on your bike or in your garden has known positive environmental benefits, a growing body of evidence shows that there is a connection between our exposure to greenspace and our health. After spending time outside in nature, I often feel happier, calmer, and more satisfied, which is one reason why I love my local park.

Have you heard the popular term, Vitamin N (n for nature), coined by Richard Louv? Perhaps you’ve heard the term, Vitamin G (g for greenspace)? Another is Biophila (our bond to other living things), made popular by Edward O. Wilson. Whatever you want to call it, stress relief, increased cognitive function, and improved immune function are a few of the health benefits that are possible by increasing your exposure to nature.

In particular, a report entitled, Green City: Why Nature Matters to Health – An Evidence Review, found a consistent relationship between mental health and exposure to green space. Research suggests that time spent in nature can decrease levels of anxiety and depression.

More good news is that you do not need to flee the City, or immerse yourself in the wilderness for days to experience the positive health impacts from connecting with nature. Many studies suggest that having green space within 1km of your home provides the most health related benefits, so you can feel good about exploring the parks that exists right within your neighbourhood.

Exposure to nature is important for all of us, but especially for children. Children benefit from a higher dose of nature, as they experience a reduction in stress, an increase in creativity, building of self-esteem, and enhanced concentration skills, as listed in the Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship Guide.

Children, and I would argue adults, too, do not have enough opportunities to connect with nature, a phenomenon Richard Louv named, ‘nature-deficit disorder’. It can be a struggle to get our kids off their tablets or video games.

Often when I think about spending time outside with the kids, I get stuck on doing the same activity, like going for a walk. Don’t get me wrong, a walk can be great, but lately I’ve been thinking about new opportunities for my family to slow down and interact on a deeper level with the greenspace around us.

Here are a few ideas I’m trying out. Maybe these are some new ways you and your family can choose to enjoy the greenspace in your neighbourhood:

Get to know the trees. Locate a few of your favorite trees in the neighbourhood and spend some quality time with them. Try giving a tree a hug – seriously! Hold a branch or leaf in your hand, feel the textures on and around the tree, and look at the patterns in the bark. No need to worry about having to identify the tree, just spend some time slowly noticing things that you may not have otherwise noticed, if you had dashed past.

Getting out into nature can be as easy as getting to know the trees in your yard or local park. No need to identify the tree, simply notice its bark, see if there is anything living on the tree, or explore what it’s leaves look like.

Watch and talk to the water. Peterborough has a number of waterways flowing through its neighbourhoods. If you are lucky enough to have a local creek, river, or lake close to your home, try spending some time near the water. Hearing the sounds of water, enjoying the pattern on the water’s surface, and watching the way the light reflects on water can impact our health for the better. Spend some time by the water; you can tell the water how grateful you are for all it does such as quenching your thirst and keeping us clean. Take some time to skip stones, or try to find critters in the creek, with adult supervision, of course.

Peterborough has many streams and creeks where you can enjoy skipping stones, looking for water insects, or the sounds of flowing water; get to know your local waterway and enjoy being outdoors.

Notice the birds and bugs. Find a peaceful place in your neighbourhood to listen to the birds. This could be from the sidewalk, in your backyard, or in a local park. If you can see a bird, try to identify some nearby food sources, figure out which bird is singing, or try to follow a bird around. If birds are too fast-paced for you, then ants are slower and very enjoyable creatures to watch. Watch ants as they travel, see if you can follow their route, and discover how they are able to carry so much weight.

Attendees of the 2018 Ecology Park BioBlitz enjoy birdwatching for the first time; getting out into nature can happen in your own yard or close by in a neighbourhood park.

Watch a plant grow. Locate an interesting plant growing in your neighbourhood. I can be as simple as a dandelion in your front yard or a bulb you planted last fall. Grab your favorite journal and visit the plant each week. Spend some time observing the plant’s growth, the insects that are visiting, other plants growing around it, the movement of the light, and how the plant shape and colour may change from week to week.

You can find out more about the Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship at pathwayproject.ca.

Posted in GreenUP Ecology Park, trees, urban forest, water