“Life’s a beach” or a forest, or a field…

I know that I always feel better after spending time outdoors, whether getting out for an hour in a park, beach or wooded area. The camping craze that fills up BC Provincial Parks every summer is an indication that I am not alone in this (which is sometimes disappointing when that last spot at Alice Lake is gone on a sunny weekend!) But this week in Vancouver, we get to see the practical and academic support for loving the great outdoors.

The Healthy by Nature forum, focusing on the benefits for physical and mental wellness through getting outdoors, is at the South East False Creek Community Centre from September 20 -23. The event, which has brought together a wide array of players from the planning, health and environmental fields, is focused on three basic principles:

  1. Spending time in nature improves human health.
  2. Human health depends on healthy ecosystems.
  3. Parks and protected areas contribute to vibrant, healthy communities.

In attending the forum yesterday, I was excited by the data and evidence that was laid out and shows that our intuition about the health benefits of getting outdoors in nature is correct. If you want a quick peek at the highlights, check out this video link.

Dr. Frances E (Ming) Kuo is an expert on the issue and is sharing her research over the course of the forum. She is investigating positive impacts of schoolyard environments on students’ academic achievement (as measured by standardized test scores), as well as how residential environments can support active living among older adults. This work will be very beneficial in telling us what priority to place on ‘greening’ our school yards and communities.

One Japanese study showed the health benefits of ‘forest bathing’ – one group of participants spent three days in an urban space and the other spent three days in a forested area. The forest group showed immediate improvement in their immune function, and that improvement was still apparent 30 days later. A positive health response has been shown even with much lower ‘doses’ of nature, even as little as a natural view from a school window.

One study a little closer to home also supports the tenets of the healthy by nature philosophy, and my personal experience of younger children. UBC researcher, Susan Herrington, conducted a five year study tracking the habits of toddlers and preschoolers in playgrounds around Vancouver. Her findings showed that children take well-designed, safe and colourful playground structures (created by adults) and use them in different, unintended and potentially more ‘dangerous’ ways!

Playgrounds are built to ensure safety, good policy and money well spent, often by committees of educators and parents to provide play spaces in urban environments. Herrington’s study showed that children don’t want to play it safe – they want to climb up the slide, hide in the bushes beside the structure, pile up the sand and wood chips underneath it, or divert the water trickling down the slide (as happens frequently on our Wet Coast).

“[The study] found that outdoor play spaces that contain materials that children could manipulate—sand, water, mud, plants, pathways and other loose parts—offered more developmental and play opportunities than spaces without these elements.”

Speaking yesterday Dr. William Bird, the Strategic Health Advisor for Natural England and developer of the Natural Health Service that uses the natural environment as a major health resource, agrees that children need to get out in nature and explore their environments in their own way with less adult supervision. In trying to ensure our children are safe, we may be doing a disservice to them by protecting them from the wonder, creativity and self-sufficiency that comes from trial and error.

Time outdoors is time well spent – you, whether adult or child, are the expert on how to benefit from the natural environment. So whether it’s a walk in the woods, building a sand castle or watching the trickle of water off of a leaf, get out there and get healthy.

Samantha Hartley-Folz
Manager, Policy & Programs
September 2011

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