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4/7/19blog post

childhoods spent in nature

childhoods spent in nature

I worked at a camp for emotionally disturbed children after my sophomore year in college.  The camp director prepared us for managing kids who had been expelled from school, experienced difficulties at home, and exhibited little control over their emotions or behaviors.

The camp was located in an idyllic setting in upstate New York.  After dinner, each counselor was assigned a camper, and advised not to engage in any structured activities.  We were encouraged to go for walks in the woods, talk, and spend time alone with our young camper. Times have changed. That would never occur today, would it?

At the end of the summer, I remarked to the camp director about how the kids were incredibly well behaved, very different from my initial expectations.  “It’s the greens,” explained the camp director.  He suggested that being in nature had a healing effect on kids. It didn’t make any sense to me. I had already taken three psychology courses, and that hippie “back to nature” stuff sounded very unscientific.

Maybe my camp director was right. In a fascinating study published last month in the journal, PNAS, scientists from Aarhus University looked at the impact of living in an urban versus a green space environment in Denmark. After reviewing satellite data from 1985, this longitudinal study concluded that “children who grew up with the lowest levels of green space had up to a 55 percent higher risk of developing a psychiatric disorder.” 

The scientists correlated exposure to green space with various disorders, with intellectual disabilities having the lowest connection, and alcohol and substance abuse having the highest correlation.

This study is perplexing. How does experiencing a childhood close to nature decrease your likelihood of developing psychiatric problems?

Perhaps being in nature fosters closer emotionally satisfying relationships.  With reduced distractions, we are more likely to be in the moment with others and connect in ways that are more meaningful and real. We know that the attachments we make with friends are the most important factor that gets us through life’s tough times. 

This study may simply reinforce the obvious. When we are isolated from the unimportant, we pay more attention to what matters.

Being in greenspaces may have a more significant effect than simply isolating us from the irrelevant. In Japan, it’s called “forest bathing,” and refers to the healing effects of the heightened sensitivity of listening, feeling, smelling, and touching nature. It feels calming, leading to a more relaxed psychological state. This more mindful and relaxed lifestyle may help protect us from mental disorders.

If you go for a walk in the woods, please don’t forget to power down your cell phone rather than complain about the poor reception!

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