Reconnecting with nature has become another key way to improve health and wellbeing alike – partly as more people live in urban environments and time spent in nature is more highly prized. The fewer open spaces remain, the more people come to see their importance.
Obviously anyone may benefit from time spent in the natural world, at different levels: people with no particular issues or conditions, but also people with those issues. This is demonstrated by lived experience as well as by studies in publications from the Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine Journal to the journal Dementia and the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine.
- Dementia is one group of diseases where patients may find contact with nature helpful: it is thought that contact with nature improves cognition, motor functions and mood for people with dementia. The book “Transforming The Quality of Life Of People With Dementia Through Contact With The Natural World” by Jane Gilliard and Mary Marshall (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2012) presents a wide range of theory and practice, from farming and outdoor creative arts to the benefits of walking. It highlights the issue that many people with dementia have scant opportunity to interact with nature, limited by fear or by loss of mobility and sensory perception.
- Time spent in nature could help people recovering from stroke, maybe easing depression, reducing post-stroke fatigue or helping motor movement.
- It is known that many people with autism feel a strong connection with nature, where struggles to communicate or to interact with others fall away and they become absorbed by sights and sounds.
- People with sight loss still connect with nature, maybe more through other senses, like hearing or touch. Sensory gardens create specific opportunities for people with sight loss or multiple disabilities, while any time in nature may also help. Soundscapes might replace the visual as the focus.
- Engagement with nature may help people with learning disabilities to immerse themselves in a new setting and feel a sense of space and freedom.
Mental health and wellbeing is another area where interacting with nature proves beneficial. In recent years a succession of books have explored nature’s impact on the authors’ own struggles with depression, anxiety and other related issues: books like “The Outrun” by Amy Liptrot and “The Runner” by Markus Torgeby. In different ways they share powerful stories of interacting with nature, whether walking through woodland, exploring the night sky or running across forest terrain in all weathers. Writer Joe Harkness published his book “Bird Therapy” in 2019, drawing on his own experience of birdwatching’s positive impact on his mental wellbeing. These writers’ work mirrors a growing body of research into the role of nature in specific mental health interventions and treatment. An important recent study is BRAGG R., ATKINS G. 2016 ‘A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care’ Natural England Commissioned Reports Number 204.The review focuses on three forms of nature-based interventions: social and therapeutic horticulture or STH, environmental conservation, and care farming, and recommends the use of the term “green care” to cover all such interventions. It cites diverse research studies which demonstrate improved confidence, life skills, mood and engagement among people of different ages and with different mental health diagnoses for all three forms. The review also makes nine recommendations, from greater consistency and clarity in communication to larger-scale trials and contracts to expand the use of nature-based interventions in the sector.
Nature’s impact is obviously not new. The book “Birds In A Cage” by Derek Niemann tells the true story of four British POWs in the Second World War, whose time spent birdwatching gave them purpose and motivation during their time behind barbed wire. Birdwatching in some way freed them from their circumstances. When the War ended, the men all went on to work with nature, and one even became director of the RSPB. And this is only one example drawn at random.
Connecting with nature takes many forms. Some people may benefit more from actual outdoor activity, like tree planting or wild swimming, while others may find simply hearing or seeing natural sights and sounds makes a difference. This links in with thinking around nature’s impact inspired by the American architect Dr Roger Ulrich’s April 1984 paper “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery”, published in the journal Science. Ulrich’s research into hospital design found that a view of trees through the ward window could speed recovery, reduce physical pain and mental anxiety and limit post-operative complications for patients. A later study by Roger Ulrich found that simply looking at pictures of trees could also prove beneficial. Over the years which have followed, his research has spawned further thinking and practice.
This also links in with a growing awareness of the use of biophony (sounds of the natural world). As technology has evolved, hydrophones, microphones and spectrographs enable sound recordists across the world to build up a complex sound library to share and understand. These soundscapes can immerse people in environments wholly different from their own settings. With many different uses (like assessing biodiversity loss through acoustic ecology), biophony also has a clear part to play in nature initiatives for health and wellbeing, whether or not people also experience nature directly. And the related science of biomusicology adds another layer by connecting biophony to music.
Interacting itself may take many forms: not simply planting or digging or clearing, but other experiences to connect us, some of which might link in with art or music as well. Trying to record birdsong or insect sightings, or experimenting with macro plant photography, could open up new levels of interaction with the natural world.
Moreover, different nature-based projects may prove fluid. Community gardening or city farming could provide opportunities for specific STH or care farming if the need exists. And what might seem everyday may have scope for real impact. Time spent among trees is known in the sector by the striking name of “forest bathing”, conjuring up a truly immersive and refreshing experience.
The importance of time spent in nature also reflects awareness of the need for physical exercise to improve mental wellbeing, highlighted by bodies such as Sport England and MIND.
In line with all this research and thinking, projects linking people and nature have sprung up nationwide.
*There are walking groups for people who have dementia, forest activities for people with mental health issues, and woodcraft sessions.
*Charities exist to plant trees and gardens alike around hospitals, GP surgeries and other healthcare settings.
*The RSPB has undertaken work with an NHS Partnership Trust to engage mental health patients with nature, among a range of other initiatives.
*Some county Wildlife Trusts run initiatives, like Sheffield Wildlife Trust’s Wild At Heart project for the over 50s, Avon Wildlife Trust’s Wellbeing With Nature, and Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s TEaM work in partnership with Coventry and Warwickshire MIND and Coventry Council. Kent, Dorset and Cheshire are just three other Wildlife Trusts running wellbeing programmes. Research confirms related impacts. A 2017 study by the University of Essex (ROGERSON M, BARTON J, BRAGG R, PRETTY J “The health and wellbeing impacts of volunteering with the Wildlife Trusts”) found “significant” improvements.
*The University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group has developed the 5 Pathways to Nature Connectedness.
*BTCV (The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers) pioneered the Green Gym idea some years ago, and this has now expanded widely. Care farming initiatives reconnect people in different circumstances to the land: young people with anxiety, older people diagnosed with dementia, or refugees and asylum seekers for example. Of the 230 care farms in the UK, the figure cited by the Braggs and Atkins review, some 75% were focused on mental health.
Issues which could create barriers to participation range from transport to limited mobility or limited disabled access to the countryside.
Clearly people who live in rural areas may be more likely to encounter nature in the everyday. Yet there is also real scope in urban areas, as is demonstrated by studies like Improving Wellbeing Through Urban Nature and by people like David Lindo, the Urban Birder.