Living in tune with nature isn’t about being happy

Let me be clear: I’m totally on board with the “get out into nature more” bandwagon, and I’m thrilled to see increasing research showing how much being out in nature contributes to well-being and health.

But in this interview on Wired with the writer of The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, something stood out to me as problematic in how we often approach this natural buzz:

“We don’t recognize how happy nature makes us.”

I think we need some clarity around terms. If by “nature” we simply mean “green living things,” then sure, it makes us feel good. But if we mean “nature” as in the wilderness and the brutal forces therein, then happiness may be a quixotic cause.

Living in tune with nature means having humility and respect, which comes from an appreciation for the often volatile and seemingly senseless danger and risks that are inherent in living in nature. In other words, it’s not just about something we can “get” from nature, in a transactional way, but also about recognizing and assuming our proper place within the cosmos.

That’s a point, alas, I don’t expect many people will buy into, so I understand why we focus on the transactional benefits of nature.

So while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about our children. We want them to be healthy and happy, right?

As Williams points out so well in the interview, our kids are the ones suffering the most from our lack of attunement to nature (however one defines it):

“I think our institutions need to take [incorporating nature into urban infrastructure] on, especially schools. Where I live, only 10 percent of kids get the recommended recess time. Which is appalling, because we know that kids need this time to run around and have exploratory free play in order to just pay attention later in the day.

. . . If you have kids, the most important thing you can do is get your kids outside enough to develop their love for nature. You will be giving them a gift they will have their entire lives.”

And while we’re at it, let’s help them gain a requisite humility and respect for the forces beyond our ken.

https://www.wired.com/2017/03/spend-5-percent-day-outside/

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Sunday Smorgasbord: Design

By Glen Edelson from ATLANTA, USA (Lox and eggs) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Glen Edelson from ATLANTA, USA (Lox and eggs) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I’m playing around with the formatting of these weekly roundups. Let me know what works or doesn’t work for you. UPDATE: looks like links in pictures weren’t working, so I added embedded links to each article.

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A nice overview of the relationship between architectural design and well-being from The Guardian’s Cities.

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“One, two, three, four!” they counted in Finnish. (For good measure, I jumped into the ditch, too.) The teacher, Pelo, explained that this experience represented how she and the two aides aspire to teach the kindergartners in the woods. She described this approach as “secret” learning, when children are unaware that they’re learning academic content. In the forest, these Finnish educators might lead the children to find sticks of varying lengths and organize them from shortest to longest, form letters out of natural materials, or count mushrooms.

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Smart stuff, as usual, from Amanda Ripley.

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It’s likely that as long as humans and their institutions hold prejudices and bias, their designs will reflect them. But some progress is possible. Two decades ago architect Ronald Mace imagined a new standard, in which anything humans make — a new piece of technology, a public park, a household product — is usable by everyone. He called this idea “universal design.” Today it’s an enforceable legal standard in Norway. One way to help us get there? Make sure the design process itself is also accessible to all.

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“All of the choice-based reform efforts that they’ve come up with over the last 20 years have been designed to bring back all the white people who left after Brown v. Board. But the irony is that, if [districts] keep relying on choice, they’re going to be set up for failure because white people will not enroll their children in schools unless they’re already [predominantly] white,” said Natalie Hopkinson, a black parent and journalist, referring to extensive research showing privileged, white parents tend to send their kids to schools that they perceive as “high status.” “So the segregation keeps repeating itself as long as you rely on choice as a way to make the change.”

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In the Philadelphia school district, 37 percent of the system’s 144,000 are chronically absent. Among high-school students, the figure shoots up to 51 percent. The districts in Baltimore and Milwaukee have similar numbers. For Cleveland and Detroit, the chronic absenteeism rates are around 50 percent, and more than 60 percent of Cleveland’s high-schoolers missed more than three weeks of school a year.

The report’s authors write that one common denominator linking these cities is the “nearly 100 years of historical actions that aimed to segregate African American populations in sections of the city with the poorest housing, greatest proximity to industrial pollutants, greatest exposure to violence, and highest unemployment rates, resulting in widespread inter-generational poverty.”

Green Space Reduces Teen Aggression

March San Diego Vacation 150

In a first-of-its-kind longitudinal study, researchers from the University of Southern California report urban adolescents who grow up in neighborhoods with more greenery are less likely to engage in aggressive behavior.

. . . “We found strong evidence supporting the benefits of neighborhood green space in reducing aggressive behaviors,” the researchers write. “The results of our adjusted analyses suggest a consistent pattern of decreased aggression associated with increasing residential green space within a 1000-meter buffer.”

They found no evidence this impact was limited to wealthier or poorer neighborhoods, and report it still held true after accounting for such factors as traffic density and proximity to freeways.

—Tom Jacobs, “Teenagers Surrounded by Green Are Less Aggressive” in Pacific Standard

Adaptive Learning: Rock Climbing

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“When you’re on a rock ledge,” Willson says, “there’s a sweet spot of arousal and stress that opens you up for adaptive learning. You find new ways of solving problems.”

—Florence Williams, “ADHD Is Fuel for Adventure” on Outside

Being In Nature Benefits Health – But How? | IFLScience

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“Kuo suggests that fresh air, sunlight and a beautiful view relax us and turn off our “fight or flight” responses. “When we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes – growing, reproducing, and building the immune system,” she said. If so, many of the same benefits can be achieved for those who really aren’t the outdoor type by doing what they love, be it reading a good book or spending time with friends. However, Kuo adds these don’t provide elements of good health such as Vitamin D.”

–Stephen Luntz, “Being In Nature Benefits Health – But How?” On IFL

Forest Mondays

A stream in the Adirondacks
A stream in the Adirondacks

“Every Monday morning, the kids suit up for a day outdoors. Rain or shine — even in the bitter cold — they go out. They head to the woods next to their school where they’ve built a home site with forts and a fire pit.

First thing, the kids go to their “sit spots.” These are designated places — under a tree, on a log — where each kid sits quietly, alone, for 10 minutes. Their task is to notice what’s changed in nature since last week.

. . .

What her students gain from the experience might not be measurable, she says, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

Her principal, Amos Kornfeld, agrees. He says schools are being forced to think about everything in terms of data and measurable outcomes, but he doesn’t need test scores to tell him forest kindergarten is working.

When the kids come back from the woods, they look happy and healthy, he says. “Schools need to be focusing on that, too.”

–“Out Of The Classroom And Into The Woods,” news story on NPR ED by Emily Hanford