Whether it’s waves crashing on a sandbank or wind rustling through the treetops, nature captivates humans. And this might be, from an evolutionary standpoint, for the best. Studies suggest that people who immerse themselves in landscapes and wildernesses experience mood, cognitive, health, and longevity benefits. And kids who scrape their knees on wet pond stones or hike up sodden hillsides get higher grades in school, have lower levels of stress, and grow up caring about conservation.
“Children who learn and play in nature are healthier, happier and smarter,” Jennifer Bristol of Texas Children in Nature, a program within Texas Parks and Wildlife, told Fatherly. Besides the numerous health benefits, studies suggest “they perform better in school, they have higher levels of self discipline, they are more cooperative with others, better problem solvers, more creative, feel more connected with nature, and become tomorrow’s conservation stewards.”
The question is why. Who taught both inland and coastal peoples that the sound of the ocean is soothing? Why do mountains, flowers, and babbling brooks make people from vastly different cultures all feel similarly at peace? Why do tranquil clearings in forests feel so…tranquil?
Biologist E.O. Wilson proposed a solution, known as the Biophilia Hypothesis. In explaining mankind’s universal pull outdoors, Wilson noted that early humans spent millions of years surviving by their connection with nature before the advent of cities and supermarkets. Those who tracked animals, nibbled on plants, and sought clean water were most likely to survive. “It would be therefore quite extraordinary,” Wilson reasoned in 1995. “To find that all learning rules related to that world have been erased in a few thousand years, even in the tiny minority of peoples who have existed for more than one or two generations in wholly urban environments.”
Whether or not Wilson was right, scientists suspect our bodies are pre-programmed to reward us for remaining in tune with natural environments. These rewards are most well-defined among children.
“For kids, nature is just an amazing playground,” Richard Mitchell, an epidemiologist and co-director of the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health, told Fatherly. “It’s a fantastic place to discover how the world works, bounce around on tree branches, play around in mud. All of those sensory stimulations that we think are good for development.”
There may be a physiological basis for this phenomenon. Studies suggest that our brains respond to nature by muting our stress responses, Mitchell says, decreasing the concentration of stress hormones circulating in our bodies and lowering our blood pressure. And that’s just from fleeting exposure to natural environments. Studies have shown that children who spend significant time outdoors are better able to pay attention in class and score higher on standardized tests. One 2005 study found that at-risk youth in California experienced a 27 percent increase in classroom behavior and mastery of science concepts after just one week of outdoor education.
Time outdoors, Mitchell addss, often involves physical activities that promote social skills while fighting obesity.
In 2008, Mitchell and his colleagues published a study that added another layer to the complex relationship between green spaces and human health. He surveyed hundreds of thousands of mortality records in England, and confirmed that people living in poor neighborhoods with green spaces lived longer and suffered fewer health inequalities than those in concrete jungles.
On the surface, this body of research suggests that peppering low-income communities with gardens and parks could decrease health inequalities; that every hospital room needs a potted plant, and every psychiatric patient needs a wilderness. But Mitchell remains cautious when it comes to interpreting the results of these studies. “Obviously there are lots of things that drive mental and physical health,” he says. “Green spaces are possibly important; one influence among many.” Besides, Mitchell adds, it’s possible that these sorts of studies (including his own) are skewed by the fact that poor, sick people seldom take long walks in the park. “The question for us is what kinds of people have contact with nature in the first place,” he says. “It tends to be slightly healthier and wealthier and, in America, slightly whiter people who do this.”
Other research points to a connection between contact with nature and altruistic, collaborative, and cooperative behavior. One 2006 study found that students enrolled in schools with more diverse natural environments were not just more physically active but also more civil to one another. On a societal level, studies suggest that children who grow up around nature are more environmentally conscious and more interested in conservation. “We protect what we love,” Cassy Aoyagi, who studies how local environments can benefit kids and designs gardens for schools, told Fatherly. “When kids connect to nature, they become better stewards.”
But what constitutes nature? Is it enough to send your children into the backyard to reap the potential health and behavioral benefits of the great outdoors—or do you need to be a hiking family to pull that off? Does a desert count as “nature” or do we crave greenery, specifically?
This remains the subject of some dispute. In her work squeezing greenery into urban spaces, Aoyagi takes a liberal approach. “Green space and ‘nature’ could and should be everywhere,” Aoyagi says. “In our built environments, particularly our urban spaces, we tend to see only the buildings. We miss the spaces where nature could be: between buildings, in medians and parkways, and of course parks and other municipal grounds. Each of these spaces presents opportunities to connect kids with nature.” Keeping with this view, Aoyagi has dedicated her career to working green spaces into urban environments with the U.S. Green Building Council.
But a more scientific, standardized definition of “nature” is not forthcoming. Studies have shown that we’re drawn to familiar natural environments (and that adults who grew up hiking in deserts may not appreciate wandering in forests), which means that nature may be less an objective benchmark and more a matter of what feels like home. Mitchell’s research suggests that there are only a handful of constants when we talk about the benefits of nature. “The important thing is that it’s vegetated, not built-on,” he says. “For kids in particular, it’s important that there’s space to run and play. In the adult world, there’s evidence that trees are important.”
And this is where evolution kicks in. Scientists stress that many kids want to get outside and most only need minor encouragement to take a walk or a hike (the gentlest of pushes). In truth, the difference between a so-called “Indoor Kid” and a so-called “Outdoor Kid” is not fundamental. The difference it the result of a series of decisions made actively or passively by caregivers. Nature may very well make kids better, but not all parents prioritize exposing their kids to trees instead of, say, the young adult novels made from them. This is understandable, but might ultimately be the wrong call.
Sometimes it’s best to let evolution have its way.
“We lead really scheduled lives. We have soccer practice and piano lessons and everything else for our children to be successful, but nature is part of having a healthy life and it’s just as important,” Mitchell says.“You simply have to put nature on your calendar.”