By: Delana H Stewart
- A sharper mind?
- A stronger immune system?
- Less stress?
- More energy and strength?
- Better instincts?
- Enriched creativity, imagination, inspiration?
- Increased patience?
- Heightened senses?
- Greater sense of satisfaction with life?
- An edge in a competitive job market?
- A healthy and fit body?
- Relief from physical or emotional pain?
- A deeper connection with the Creator?
If I told you I knew of a vitamin you could take that had mountains of research backing its claims to do all that and more, you and countless others would stand in line for it. Richard Louv, in his book The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder (NP), calls it Vitamin N for nature. Mr. Louv also authored the bookLast Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (LC). You probably do not have time to read two 300+ page books. Have time for the highlights? Read on! One book will be reviewed in this post and the other one in a following post.
In The Nature Principle, Louv discusses the growing disconnection we have with nature and how this dulls our senses. One day his son Matthew asked him if faith was a sense. . .”as in sensing a higher power,” to which Louv commented, “Perhaps this sense, if it is one, is why so many of us use religious terminology as we talk about our experiences of nature, even if we’re not religious in a formal way” (p. 18 NP). In today’s day and age, adults and children alike have become immersed in the electronic realm. Immersion in this, “without a force to balance it—(drains) our ability to pay attention, to think clearly, to be productive and creative. The more high-tech we become the more nature we need” (p. 24 NP). Louv emphasizes how we are born with senses that connect us to every living thing in the world, and that being in a natural environment often stimulates “our ability to pay attention, think clearly, and be more creative, even in dense urban neighborhoods” (p. 27 NP).
From research done by environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, Louv points out many ways that the natural world benefits people. The Kaplans’ research specifically dealt with nature’s effects on helping people deal with fatigue, irritability, impulsivity, distractibility, making poor choices, impatience, and poor decision making. They discovered nature’s ability to restore the brain (p. 29 NP).
In other studies that Louv sites, researchers discovered that having a view of nature improved standardized test scores, reduced criminal behavior, improved cooperation, boosted self-esteem, and aided conflict resolution and problem solving (p. 30 NP). He also shared insights from great minds in the science and literary world that “revealed greater mental acuity after a nature walk” (p. 33 NP). Again, how many people would willingly line up in the store for a vitamin that research had proven reliable for making you smarter? And, the answer is as simple as taking a walk on the bunny trail.
“It’s reasonable to speculate, then,” Louv writes, “that time spent in the natural world, by both restoring and stimulating the brain, may lead to bursts of new neurons (the brain cells that process and transmit information)” (p. 34 NP). As we age and worry about losing brain cells, this is great news! Louv also quotes writers and painters who are “drawn to the outdoors for refreshment and ideas,” as well as to de-stress and be happy (p. 35 NP).
This is definitely a new era we are entering. We cannot make technology go away. And, there is a valid place for learning about and keeping up with technology. However, we also need to realize that the high-tech mind is programmed or wired differently than the nature-focused mind. Those who will be highly sought after in tomorrow’s job market may just be those who have developed both the techy-mind and the mind of the natural world. Louv gives many great examples of the senses and abilities developed by those who spend time in the natural world saying that our world will need those who have a good “balance of high-tech and natural knowledge” (pp. 38-39 NP).
One fascinating story in The Nature Principle was about a high school student who took pride in his abilities and accomplishments in the computer world. This young man spent two weeks on an organic farm for summer camp, without the Internet. When he returned home and began going through all the e-mail and Facebook notifications he said, “I just didn’t care. What I really wanted to do was go outside and have fun in the real world” (p. 39 NP). Sometimes it just takes an extended break away from the gadgets that control us to remind us of our need for nature, and the many ways we benefit from it.
Today, many places of business have discovered the benefits of nature. Hospitals use natural and artificial nature to promote faster healing. Offices provide cubicles with a view or internal gardens where workers can find a reprieve from stress throughout the day. Not long ago, my husband and I traveled through the Amsterdam airport. We had a long layover and discovered a huge area that had recently been re-done. On the glass wall a panorama of a real-life park scene had been glued in place. This scene allowed light to enter but blocked the chaos of travelers coming and going on the other side of the wall. Artificial and real trees were put in place as well as a nature-friendly balcony with picnic table. Inside, under the trees, weary travelers could lounge on camo-colored beanbags. Computerized butterfly images danced under the tree for children to chase. Nature-sounds played softly in the background. In chapter four, Louv points out that researches have found that real nature and even murals of nature with recordings of nature sounds help control pain and reduce hospital stays (pp. 46-47 NP). Although I have not experienced that, I can attest to the way in which I was able to relax and de-stress in the midst of a busy, chaotic international airport.
Vitamin N (rather, a walk through nature) actually benefits another necessary vitamin. “According to one study, as many as ¾ of U.S. teens and adults are deficient in Vitamin D, which is obtained naturally from sunshine and some foods…Vitamin D blood levels are dropping and that deficiency is associated with…cancer, arterial stiffness, type 2 diabetes, lower mood levels during winter, decreased physical strength in young people” as well as other mental and physical health issues (p. 48 NP).
Though we understand the risks of lack of nature and the benefits of being in nature, why do we as a culture continue to increase opportunities for television viewing and decrease opportunities for watching the physical world? Louv points out how many families are buying vehicles with built in TV or game machines instead of encouraging what parents used to encourage, things such as watching cows, clouds, birds on electrical wires, road kill, etc., and dreaming of the future (p. 63 NP). Instead of using backseat babysitters encourage your kids to look at and really see the amazing things around them.
Through much of my own reading, I have seen many counselors report that teenagers need at least 10-12 hugs a day from their parents for mental health and to stay sexually pure. Yet, in The Nature Principle, Louv discusses how physical touch has decreased as time in nature has decreased. He says that many people even go throughout an average day without even a handshake (p. 67 NP).
In my post “How Does Your Child Think” from June 2010, I wrote a review of books and conferences written and taught by Kathy Koch, in which she discusses Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Louv also references Gardner’s theory by saying that there were originally seven intelligences, to which Gardner added an eighth, a naturalist intelligence or “the human ability to recognize plants, animals, and other parts of the natural environment, like clouds or rocks” (p. 72 NP).One excellent point Louv makes particularly about the naturalist intelligence, but not to the exclusion of the other seven, is that “children are able to attune themselves to all kinds of learning if they have appropriate developmental experiences” (p. 74 NP). Think back to your own childhood. I well remember spending much of my elementary-aged years playing games outside, such as: hide and seek, freeze tag, and swinging statues. I also remember climbing trees, building tree-houses, playing in the park, and going on long adventures hunting four-leaf clovers. Are kids today being allowed and encouraged to spend time outside?
According to Louv, studies in four countries show that when given a choice between green play areas and asphalt/manufactured play areas, the children choosing the green areas engage in more creative forms of play and show a “greater sense of wonder” (p. 88 NP). Which came first? Do creative children choose green areas for play or do children who have been exposed to play-in-nature turn out more creative? It seems that research is beginning to point to the latter.
The Road Taken
One day during our years living in one of the most ecologically devastated cities of Central Asia, our landlord took us on a two to three hour car trip to visit his village. After the visit, he wanted us to see the hot springs and cold springs and waterfalls in the area. Upon parking the car near to where he wanted to take us, he could not figure out which path to take to go to the hot springs. He and his daughter led my husband and I and our three young sons on one of the paths. We all had on flip-flops and carried only beach towels, as he was certain it was only a 2-3 minute hike to the springs. He also said that we could get food and drink near the springs, so we did not carry anything else with us either. After walking about thirty minutes, the trail began to ascend the mountain. We were now fairly sure the landlord did not have a clue as to how to find the hot springs. He found a man coming down over the mountain and asked him which way to the springs. He pointed to a different path which did lead to the river. Once we reached the river, we discovered that we were at the top of a long, narrow waterfall. Two teenage boys (wearing only underwear) had just ascended the dirt, root-laden path beside the falls. The landlord asked them if we could get to the hot springs from the way they came. “Yes,” they assured him. So, we—with our young boys, all of us wearing flip-flops—climbed down the waterfall, holding on to tree roots and dangling limbs. Once down to the river side, we quickly learned that we had to scale the side of a rocky cliff to actually get down to the path leading to the springs. After three hours, we finally made it, without too many scratches, and enjoyed relaxing in the hot and cold springs. When we were finished, we followed a path out that took only 2-3 minutes to get to our car. Our landlord had chosen the path less traveled.
As Robert Frost said in his poem The Road Not Taken: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Perhaps as parents we need to hit more trails with our kids and put ourselves in the Nature Zone.
Stay Tuned for the follow-up post based on Mr. Richard Louv’s book: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, in which he discusses nature’s connection to helping kids who suffer from ADHD and other disorders with similar issues.If you like this post, you may also be interested in reading a post on my personal blog called Hit the Bunny Trail.
If you would like more information and ideas for getting in the nature zone, you can find Louv’s books on his site or places like these:
Or, if you are in the U.S., your local library will likely have them.