In Section 1 of Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes about our society’s apparent disconnection from nature. After describing the deleterious effects of what he has called, Nature Deficit Disorder, he wraps up the section by pointing out, “deficit is only one side of the coin.” In Section 2, he discussed the other side of that coin: “natural abundance”.
I found the writing on nature therapy fascinating. The term, “restorative environment” seemed absolutely fitting. Louv cites a litany of research to support the term.
- A ten-year study of gallbladder surgery patients found that those who enjoyed a view of a grove of trees were able to be released sooner than those with a view of a brick wall.
- A Michigan study of prison inmates revealed that those whose cells had a view of farmland had 24% fewer illnesses than those whose cells viewed the courtyard.
- Even images of nature have been shown to induce measurable signs of physical calmness (pulse rates, muscle tension, etc.) in only 5 minutes.
Perhaps one of my favorite examples came from Swedish researcher, Terry A. Hartig, who noted that nature has an ability to repair “normal psychological wear and tear” and increase focus.
In one of his studies, Hartig gave subjects a 40 minute task which required a lot of focus, with the sole intent of depleting their attention capacity. During the 40 minute break afterward, subjects were divided into three groups. One group recovered by walking in a nature preserve, another by walking in an urban area, and the third by quietly looking at magazines and listening to soft music.
After the 40 minute recovery period, they were given a proofreading task to again test their attention and focus. The group with the highest proofreading scores was the group that spent their recovery period in the nature preserve. Incidentally, this group also reported more positive emotions and less anger as compared to the other groups.
I couldn’t help but think of the application this research has (or should have) when it comes to the role of recess in our education systems. Louv reports that in the US during the 21st century, nearly 40% of elementary schools “either eliminated or were considering eliminating recess”. I can only assume the percentage would be even higher if one were also to include schools where recess was shortened. Almost always, the reason cited is the need for more instruction time to meet higher standards (though others mention lack of facilities or staffing for supervision). Yet, the evidence bears out that children are more attentive after recess periods than before. (Find more research on recess and cognitive performance here.)
I can’t see how anyone could be aware of this research and choose to eliminate recess periods, or “punish” a child for inattentiveness by withholding recess (which by the research would ironically lead to more inattentiveness).
The restorative environment is about more than just recess though. It is about the need for our children –and ourselves– to spend time in nature on a regular basis. Something that isn’t always easy. But when you think about it in the terms Hartig used, who doesn’t experience “psychological wear and tear” on a regular basis? If we know the remedy, shouldn’t we apply it?
The actual term, “restorative environment”, was introduced by researchers (and spouses) Stephen and Rachel Kaplan. Based on their experience and research, they suggest that demands for focused attention are not indefinitely sustainable. Eventually, we all develop “directed-attention fatigue”. The condition’s description sounds a bit like the description of ADHD itself: “impulsive behavior, agitation, irritation, and inability to concentrate”.
The Kaplans suggest that to reset this ability to intentionally direct attention, the mind needs to shift to an “automatic” attention, attention driven naturally by fascination. Nature, they suggest, is one of the most effective sources of this fascination-driven, automatic attention. By allowing directed-attention to rest, the fatigue is relieved and abilities are restored.
The Kaplans have shared research following over a thousand office workers, which showed natural views increased enthusiasm and productivity. Research by other outlets have found similar results with children, particularly those with ADD/ADHD.
Studies have found the experiences in nature – even natural views through a window – alleviate symptoms of ADD/ADHD. By contrast, indoor activities (TV was specifically mentioned) as well as outdoor play in areas void of natural features (blacktop and cement as opposed to trees and grass) were found to increase symptoms.
Louv references at least one psychiatrist who, though he supports the proper use of medications to treat ADD/ADHD also supports “prescribing” time in nature as an additional treatment. As Louv points out, nature therapy is not only effective, it’s also “widely accessible, free of side effect, non-stigmatizing, and inexpensive”.
It’s hard to say if nature is the remedy to an independent malady – like a prescription to an organic illness – or if these therapy sessions are simply restoring something that was lost – supplementing to restore balance after a deficiency. It’s a chicken and egg type of question. More likely it’s a combination of many factors — biological propensities, physical and experiential variations. But one thing seems clear: whatever the cause, nature appears as an indispensable balm for ameliorating much of the “wear and tear” — both clinical and common — that ails the human psyche.
Many people can relate to their own experiences with nature therapy and its restorative power, whether the sessions were intentional or serendipitous. I know I can. (Shawn at Awesomely Awake shares her experience here.) But I was particularly struck by one in the book.
The account tells of a picture from an issue of San Francisco magazine. The picture is of a small boy, enthusiastically and thoroughly enjoying himself on the beautiful expanse of sand and surf around him. Accompanying this photo is an article explaining that the boy had been described as hyperactive and had been expelled from school. His perplexed parents found he was both calmed and engaged by nature, so they immersed him in the varied natural environments they had access to, and let him soak in the therapy.
This wasn’t one of the families Louv interviewed in the early 2000s for his book. The photo was actually taken in the early 1900s. The child in the photo was renowned nature photographer Ansel Adams.
One can only wonder what hidden gifts lie within the children labeled as “difficult” or “troubled”, or what potential is held within those days that just aren’t going right. Perhaps if we, like Ansel Adams’ parents, can “let nature do its work” we’ll be able to find out.
What got you thinking in Section 2? Share your thoughts!
Just getting started? Find Section 1 here.
Following along? Go to Section 3 here.