This is a reproduction of questions asked of the author of 'Your Brain On Nature: The Science of Nature's Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality' in the blog, Docs Talk. Docs Talk is a joint project of the David Suzuki Foundation and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
Alan C. Logan is a graduate of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine and an invited faculty member at Harvard's School of Continuing Medical Education. His latest book, written in collaboration with Harvard Medical School physician Eva Selhub, explores the connection between nature and human health and happiness. Your Brain, On Nature: The science of nature's influence on your health, happiness and vitality was published by John Wiley Inc. in spring 2012.
Docs Talk: What happens to our brains "on nature"?
Dr. Logan: People commonly report that spending time in nature makes them feel better. A series of recent studies provides scientific support for this notion. Sophisticated brain-imaging techniques 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. These same pathways are activated when a person looks at pictures of a loved one. 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. These findings support previous investigations showing that nature scenes can enhance brain-wave activity in ways that are similar to the benefits of meditation.
Docs Talk: How is day-to-day life preventing our brains from reaping those benefits?
Dr. Logan: There has been a shift away from nature-based recreation in favour of the ubiquitous screen. Even when individuals enter green space, they are often not really "there" in the mindful sense — texting, incoming messages, and eyes fixated upon Smartphones take the brain elsewhere. In many ways we are drowning in a sea of infotoxicity and entertainment media. Extracting ourselves from the information vortex is hard because "information", even of dubious quality, has a powerful physiological pull. To be clear, technology does wondrous things; it is not "bad". However, an overuse of gadgetry technology may be a key driver in the dilution of nature's benefits.
Docs Talk: What is science telling us about the connection between nature and healthy brains?
Dr. Logan: Let me highlight just a few of the important findings of late. Recent studies employing land-use data and satellite technology have reported that access to green space within a kilometre of one's residence is associated with improved mental health. Indeed, large population studies show that those with the least green space within one kilometre of home have a 25 per cent greater risk of depression and a 30 per cent higher risk of an anxiety disorder. Multiple studies from Japan show spending time in forests can lower stress, improve mental outlook, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Separate studies have shown similar cognitive-enhancing effects of short periods spent in natural settings. Spending just 20 minutes in vegetation-rich nature has been shown to improve vitality. Given that vitality is defined in psychological lexicon as emotional strength in the face of internal and external oppositions, and living life with enthusiasm and zest, the implications for personal and planetary health are enormous.
Docs Talk: What was the most surprising thing you discovered when researching this book?
Dr. Logan: I was struck by the sheer volume of published research on this topic. What started as a mere trickle of studies in the late 1970s has grown leaps and bounds in recent years. It is amazing how convincing the body of evidence has become that shows nature is a variable capable of influencing cognition and behaviour. To highlight one startling report published in the prestigious journal Lancet, a nationwide study in the United Kingdom found that green space is a profound equalizer of health inequalities. When low income was associated with little access to green space, there were significant health disparities between lower and higher socio-economic brackets. This gap narrowed when low-income individuals had access to green space near their residence. Green space helped to fill in the broad health divide between the affluent and the at-risk.
Docs Talk: What do you recommend people do to get their brains back on nature?
Dr. Logan: We need to push land-use planners and politicians to consistently prioritize access to green space as our cities continue to grow. I am hopeful that the recent scientific evaluations of nature's mental health benefits will help in this process.
As individuals, we can also take steps to foster a connection with nature, starting with getting out into green space in a mindful way. Paying attention to what you are experiencing in the current moment is the bridge between mere exposure to green space and its full rewards in the sphere of mental health. There are multiple ways in which people can make contact with nature in a mindful way — a 20-minute respite away from the office or classroom in an urban park, community or personal gardening, environmental volunteerism, interaction with animals and pets, and at the far end of the spectrum, adventure and so-called wilderness excursions. Obviously, this involves taking a techno-break and powering down the screen and Smartphone.
Docs Talk: What connection do you think your research has to helping us overcome the many environmental challenges we face?
Dr. Logan: There is every reason to be positive about the ability of renewed nature contact to feed greater concern for the environment. Multiple studies show that actual contact with nature, particularly in childhood, is one of the greatest predictors of pro-environmental attitudes. The good news is that, regardless of age, it is entirely possible to foster greater connectivity with nature by mindful contact with nature — and this enhanced connectivity manifests itself in more pronounced attitudes toward pro-environmental concerns. The missing link is awareness of the vitalizing effect of nature, but thankfully this is teachable. A more potent appreciation of the ability of nature to influence positive mental health can be a catalyst for broad change.
I was just reading a great blog post from David Suzuki
. It gives us stats that we've all heard of by now, on how kids spend more hours than the average work week in front of screens and less than an hour a day outside. I know, sad.
I love the last line of his blog though:
"Parents need to remember all the fun times they had outside as kids. They need to trust their children, and kick them out the door like my Mom did. Our survival may depend on it."
Here is one things I've noticed with my family recently, giving me proud mama moments: When my kids get home from school and are faced with increasing amounts of homework, which translates into increased hours sitting at their desks, if I leave them to it, eventually, I will hear one call out to the other: "Want to go play outside for a bit? I need to move!" ...And out they go... They do random things, but always find something to do. They get to move, release some accumulated tension, laugh, get some fresh air and have fun. Yes, it's in their habits to be outside, yes, I spent the time taking them outside everyday when they were younger and yes, it's paying off now and will continue for the rest of their lives. Indeed, something to be proud of.
I just wanted to share this wonderful project carried out by a class of Grade 4/5 on Salt Spring Island, BC.
The class spends a lot of time in their local woodland park, writing, playing, creating natural art projects, surveying and monitoring the local stream network.
This project saw them choosing a particular plant in the park, researching it, and designing an information card about it. They found out its botanical name, 3 interesting facts and drew a picture. Each card was collected and made into this information board by a local signmaker. It now stands at the entrance of the park as a resource for all park users.
The idea is that learning local species' names and characteristics will create increased awareness and understanding of the natural world. This in turn will instill increased empathy for the well-being of the natural world and is the philosophy behind the Get to Know program began by Robert Bateman and Mary Krupa-Clark in 1999. Their motto of 'Connect. Create. Celebrate' articulates the mission to foster connections to nature through the creative arts – 'and to celebrate the fantastic work being done by youth in response to the environment and the need to understand and value nature.'Certainly 'Getting to Know' their woodland neighbours enthusiastically engaged the class and helped develop the students' stewardship and responsibility for a local park that lies within their community.
Having recently rediscovered the Harry Potter stories the boys were inspired to make their own wands at the weekend.
They each have a small penknife and once the right twig had been found they set to work whittling away the bark and the designs began to take shape.
Great conversations were overheard about the magic powers of each and their memory of the names of all the spells was quite impressive! They talked about the types of tree that their wands had been made from and commented on texture, colour and the hard/soft qualities of the wood.
It was an afternoon well spent, lost in creativity and their imagination :)
First week back at school and the sky outside Salt Spring Elementary is filled with homemade kites. The whole school is outside launching the school wide project for the year, aptly named ....Sky!
The project will see students outdoors many times in the coming year, connecting with their local environment and engaging in authentic, place based learning. The project invites integrated project work in the local, familiar community.
Place based learning has long been advocated as a powerful and effective educational strategy. In the States inspirational work carried out by the Place-Based Education Evaluation Collaborative claims that “... in short, place-based education helps students learn to take care of the world by understanding where they live and taking action in their own backyards and communities. Place-based learning, wherever that place is, teaches a sense of community and gives students a model for living well anywhere.”
Place based learning makes learning active, tangible, and relevant. It promotes interdisciplinary thinking, an understanding of relationships, and civic responsibility — all vital skills for sustainability. By focusing on their local environment, students see ways they can positively impact the world.
Salt Spring Elementary is taking the big step of embracing place-based learning, part of a district wide initiative to encourage a shift to the outdoor classroom. Project Sky follows on the tail of the themes of past two years Water and Forest. It has taken some extra planning by the staff and commitment by the parents to accompany classes on their field trips but we are all looking forward to year with more time outside exploring our natural world.
"Through immersion in the natural world, children can discover and experience nature's basic patterns. They experience events they would never see in the classroom. Instead of reading about ecological processes like the web of life, cycles of matter, and the flow of energy, they encounter them in the rich, messy ways they actually occur. .......... Students who learn nature's principles in gardens and other natural settings have been shown to score better in creative thinking and problem solving, science, and a variety of other academic subjects..... " (Scott P. Lewis, "Uses of Active Plant-Based Learning in K –12 Educational Settings).
Beyond the school playground lies a forest....This forest is a wooded park and lies less than a 10 minute walk away from the school. My son's class has had a wonderful time this year visiting and spending time in this environment as part of the whole school 'Forest' theme. And if you were having trouble imagining what sort of activities they were engaged in, wonder no more......10 ways to engage a class outdoors in a wooded park
1 Adopt a tree - the class started the year 'adopting' a tree. Taking its measurements, noting its growing conditions and identifying it in English and in Latin! The Western Hemlock I was introduced to was nicknamed 'Cowboy" and was happily growing from a nursery log adjacent to a creek.2 Find out how to take a tree core sample - the class found out more about this forest management technique. They discovered that knowing the age of a tree is valuable when management decisions are being made to improve forest health, predict future growth, determine soil fertility and develop cutting cycles.3 Repair a riparian zone - there are a number of creek beds in the forest and the students worked with a local community group to plant ferns along the banks helping to stabilise the soil and strengthen the banks.4 Build forts - the benefits of outdoor play in nature was explored by Simon Nicholson, a British artist and architect who first offered the ‘Theory of Loose Parts’ when understanding the relationship between environment and landscape. In 1971 he wrote, "In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity and the possibilities of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it." With an abundance of sticks and logs, fort building, problem solving and collaboration was in evidence.5 Write haikus - reflective, more peaceful moments in the forest spent listening to the running of the creeks and the wind and wildlife in the trees.6 Carry out a survey - the park has many users especially as it incorporates a disc golf course. Data collection involved questioning the users and analyzing the data through graphs and pie charts.7 Nature art - Andy Goldsworthy was the inspiration here. I was amazed to see the creativity displayed through the colours, textures and forms produced by the students.8 Take your math lesson about symmetry outside - who knew how much symmetry is out their in nature! Many varieties of leaves and sycamore seeds were common finds during this outing, just one example of math in nature!9 Creek stewardship - this was a longitudinal study involving repeated visits throughout the year to fixed sites along the creek. Measurements included temperature, flow rate, wet width, opacity, weather conditions. The students became competent at using thermometers, stopwatches, tape measures as well as applying units of measurement like metres, degrees centigrade, and metres per second. 10 Create an interpretive sign identifying the trees and shrubs of the forest - this is a permanent sign that is being placed at the entrance to the park informing visitors about all the trees and shrubs they might hope to encounter. Each student focused on one species producing an information card which was scanned and handed to a signmaker to make the final product. (I will post a photo once it has been put up)And then take time to play ..... and the kind of play that is not so easily offered by a tarmac playground and a grass playing field.These children are very lucky - the park is easily accessible and their teacher is passionate about getting her class outdoors. With next years school theme being 'Sky' more outdoor adventures are already being planned.....
When we were lucky enough to meet Richard Louv author of "The Nature Principle", we had many questions for him. Here is a portion of that interview where Richard addresses the perceived "stranger danger" and new ways to get outside with family nature clubs.
Here is a really fun activity to do with your children. Grab your camera and head outdoors. Now, try to take a picture of every letter in the alphabet that you find outdoors! It's sort of like making your own seeking book!
Not only is this great fun, it develops observation and rewards tenacity. We have the letter "V" here (one of the easy ones), see how many letters you can find in nature.
If you want to take this a little further, once you have the whole alphabet, print out your photos and use them to sing the ABC song at home with your child...
Another alphabet focused activity is the good old scavenger hunt.
You can try finding or spotting objects beginnning with the different letters of the alphabet.
Children can have a list like the one below of the objects they need to find or perhaps just identify which found objects match up with the different letters.
Which letter has the most objects matching it?
When I tried to write a list, some of the letters were quite challenging - perhaps you will have better luck!
Alphabet Nature Scavenger Hunt Ideas
B eetle/ bird/bark/butterfly
D ew/drop of water
F eather/ flower/fungus/fern
J- something juicy
K - something knobbly
M ud/ moss
N ettle/ something nibbled
O range object
Q - something that is quick
S eed/spider/ snail/stem
V eins on a leaf
Y shaped twig/ something yellow
If an alphabet list is a little daunting, try looking for the letters that make up your name, or challenge friends to work out a hidden word or message by identifying the initial letter of your nature finds.....
Can you guess these 3 letter words? Clue: The caterpillar was Alive - hint,hint!
For a few more scavenger hunt ideas check out our activity page! Happy Hunting!!
One of our favourite quotes here at Naturebag HQ is the quote from Rachel Carson about the importance of the role of adults sharing nature with children
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
We all have childhood memories of spending time outdoors with a special adult. I remember times with my grandmother who in my 10 year old opinion had this most amazing knowledge of the names of flowers and trees we would come across on walks in the countryside around her home - ragged robin, toad's flax, harebells....
Walks in the outdoors formed a large part of what we did as a family or with other families when I was growing up.
Only last night, I headed out with my own family after dinner on an evening walk that we hadn't been on before, here on our small island of Salt Spring. Our eldest son wanted to share it with us as he had been introduced to the hike through a recent school field trip. It turned out to be a wonderful way to end the evening together....
Sharing time in nature with children is important as we raise children to care and understand about our relationship with the natural world. And we can have so much fun together doing so.
In this interview with Sylvie, Richard Louv, author of "The Nature Principle", talks about the importance for both adults and children to get outside and benefit from the stress reduction, the exercise, the fresh air and all the unconscious learning that goes with it. Richard Louv tell us it may even help your children get into Harvard!
This invitation may conjure up memories of Mary Poppins for some but for my two sons this summer it has already been a frequently heard summons due to the wonderful windy conditions outdoors.
So if you are finding there is a need for something to encourage the children outdoors this summer holiday how about a spot of kite flying. We have a simple, two string kite that we have had for a couple of years that is so much fun to fly. With two strings, the boys love experimenting with different tricks and if it is sitting in the right position, the kite can be launched with just a tug on the strings - a feature I appreciate as I always seemed to be the one running out to throw it back up into the air!
If you would like an extra challenge, how about building your own kite. I found some great designs and instructions on The Kite Society website. From a simple 'Light Kite ' to a more complicated 'Hornet Stunter' there is a wide selection to choose from.
And while on the subject of kites did you know that....
The smallest kite in the world which actually flies is 5mm high.
The largest number of kites flown on a single line is 11,284, this record is held by a Japanese kite maker.The longest kite in the world is 1034 metres (3394 ft).
The largest kite in the world is the Megabite 55 x 22 metres (630sq metres).
The fastest recorded speed of a kite is over 120 mph. (193 km/h).
The record for the highest single kite flown is 3801 metres (12,471ft).
The world record for the longest 'kite fly' is 180 hours.
For my boys, kite flying this summer wins the prize for 'best outdoor fun to be had on a windy day' !