Under Our Noses: The Healing Power of Nature
Denise Mitten, PhD
“We give the grass a name, and earth a name. We say earth and grass are separate. We know this because we can pull grass free of the earth and see its separate roots - but when the grass is free, it dies.” (Susan Griffin, 1980)
Outdoor education practitioners share the wonders of the outdoors and help participants receive the health benefits of being in nature. However, in our technology and activity centered culture the intrinsic value of being in nature has been overlooked and undervalued. As people spend less and less time outside and more people become obese and develop diabetes, spending time in nature and having healthy natural areas available to them is more important than ever. Many disciplines have growing bodies of research demonstrating the developmental and health benefits of spending time in nature and having natural areas close to living areas. In this paper three theoretical concepts and underpinning theories that ground the research about the healing impact of nature will be examined. These concepts and theories indicate that humans need healthy connections with a healthy earth to survive.
Outdoor education practitioners are under pressure to provide benefit based programs. Being able to name the benefits of spending time in nature backed by research (theoretical, conceptual and empirical) is helpful in maintaining current programs or developing future programs. The information here will be useful in helping to make sound decisions and influencing people, such as when requesting program support, talking to school administrators, community planners, and funding agencies.
The author would be remiss not to acknowledge that many indigenous people have kept the knowledge of this mutual dependency between nature and humans at the forefront of their culture. The realization primarily by Western European cultures in modern day about the importance of nature for humans and how intertwined human existence and nature are has co-evolved from a multiplicity of disciplines. This rediscovery of the importance of nature for health and healing currently is building in momentum.
Nature’s benefits have been undervalued
Outdoor professionals working in environmental education and interpretation, organized camping, adventure education, wilderness therapy, and guiding outdoor pursuits all have the outdoors as a common core. Practitioners specifically working in environmental education and interpretation have educated people about the natural environment and environmental ethics. Many outdoor professionals intuitively understand the importance of being in nature and in fact have long personal histories of being outdoors. At the same time, many outdoor practitioners have focused on the adventure and challenge of being in the outdoors and truly have underestimated the power of nature in providing intrinsic benefits.
In the last 30 years many of the outdoor related fields have become less focused on being in nature and more involved with doing activities. These activities include games of every conceivable kind, jet skiing, paintball, ATVs, heated pools, skateboard parks, tennis, and adventure activities, including low and high ropes courses with a zip line, of course. Camp websites boast about the number of different activities offered (Camp Lohikan, 2009). Slowly but surely activities have become the norm at camps, in outdoor programs, in adventure education, and during adventure therapy. Fortunately, many of these activities continue to take place in nature and participants have gotten many of benefits from being in nature while they are doing the activities. However, all too often, the value of the actual time in nature has been undervalued by the general population as well as outdoor professionals.
A similar phenomenon occurred with undervaluing physical activity. In the early 1900s, even though they engaged in physical activity, people did not know the value. Therefore by the 1930s most doctors discouraged physical activity for adults over 35 and anyone who had a heart condition, high blood pressure, diabetes, or who was pregnant. It took a great deal of debate and the dedicated work of a small group of people, including Dr. Fredrick Kasch, to change societal attitudes toward exercise and demonstrate that movement is important in the prevention and recovery from most disease. Kasch saw the benefits of exercise well before medical science and he received a great deal of criticism during the first couple of decades of his work. However, in a 33-year longitudinal study, Kasch’s subjects that exercised to stay fit suffered minimal losses in fitness and no change in body fat or body composition. Now his belief is common knowledge: Exercise affects every cell and organ in the body and is necessary for health and well-being.
Just as people had been physically active, albeit for necessity, people have also been in nature since the beginning of time. Other cultures understood the importance of being physically active even before Kasch, and similarly, a thread of understanding about the healing power of nature can be traced from shamans in the Reindeer Age to 3500 BCE when medicine was about coming back into balance and harmony with natural cycles and rhythms to the late 1800s when the Quakers’ Friends Hospital used nature in the treatment of mental illness and people lived in outdoor sanitariums to recover from tuberculosis. It is debated today if the state-of-the-art “heliotrope” treatment of fresh air, sunshine, good food offered by the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society and other groups in tent camps in Colorado was a successful treatment for tuberculosis. Nevertheless, Colorado and other western states advertised heavily for ill people to recover in the dry air and sun so successfully that by 1920 it is estimated that 60% of Colorado’s population was ill people and their families who migrated there from the east coast (Harvard Magazine, 2009).
Outdoor professions, including those involved in organized camping, adventure education, wilderness therapy, and guiding outdoor pursuits are relatively new, dating in the United States to the mid to late 1800s. In the United States, outdoor professionals primarily used the outdoors as a place to get physically or mentally fit and accomplish goals that often proved mastery over the environment or used nature as a backdrop for them to apply techniques to clients to achieve behavioral and physical changes.
Coming from the industrial world, professionals can seem more fixated with techniques rather than nature. Of course, outdoor leaders need high technical ability in activity skills such as camping, backpacking, climbing, canoeing, ropes course facilitation, and the like. As outdoor leadership became a profession the technical skills were the primary focus. In recent years technical competency in group dynamics has also been emphasized. But the training does not often include a well developed understanding of the impact of the natural environment, nor do students seem to have the skills to slow down and appreciate nature or to reflect on the processes going on during a trip (Fox & Reed 1994). They note that advanced students, even after their class in leadership, still saw the role of leadership primarily as task-oriented and that damage to the environment and a lack of connection to nature can result from this task only focus. While human and nature interactions have been central for the methodology in outdoor education, it has been so obvious as to be hidden from many practitioners that nature is central to our success.
In most outdoor practices there is some combination of the natural environment, the client/leader relationship, and techniques and activities. Often activities are used as tools to create experiences and then these experiences are processed. A common belief is that the education, personal development or therapy happens through doing the activities and during the processing. In trying to gain legitimacy, funding, and governmental approval, practitioners and researchers driven by the need to prove that programs work, have tried to isolate what about these experiences make them work. For example, practitioners might administer a pretest, conduct an intervention and then administer a post test to see if participants leave the programs with the desired improvement often related to some combination of a sense of accomplishment, enhanced self-esteem, better life coping skills, higher social competence, conflict resolution skills, being more cooperative, and ability to build connections to community. Using this mechanistic mindset in trying to determine the efficacy of a treatment can sometimes hide the obvious.
Outdoor professionals have written about the importance of outdoor leaders understanding their professional responsibilities toward the natural environment and the delinquency of outdoor leaders at camps and those involved in adventure education, adventure therapy, and general outdoor pursuits leadership in promoting environmental education and environmental responsibility (Wattchow, 2001; Knapp, 1999; Matthews, 1996; McAvoy, 1990). It is time to appropriately blur the lines between environmental education and other outdoor leadership endeavors, including helping outdoor leaders understand the contributions of the natural world to human development, health, and well being.
It is this author’s belief that the natural environment, the client/leader relationship, and techniques and activities work in a system or synergistic manner to promote the outcomes listed above. However, of these three ingredients, the impact and the power of the natural environment has been over looked and undervalued, and is probably the most necessary of the three components. Additionally, being in the natural environment provides outcomes not usually listed for outdoor programs (see figure 1).
Several authors agree that a major contributing factor to the global changes that participants or clients experience after outdoor adventure experiences is the impact of being in the natural environment (Bardwell, 1992; Mitten, 1994; Beringer & Martin, 2003, Mitten, 2004). Bardwell’s research is empirical evidence and Mitten and Beringerand Martin use theoretical and conceptual research supported by empirical evidence. Valuing the contribution that being in nature provides requires that outdoor professionals realize that their work supplements and maybe focuses the power of nature, but the fact that programs happen outside is essential for certain benefits. It is also likely that developing a program that uses nature at its core, highlighting the value nature contributes, could improve program outcomes.
Life continues to be a mystery; even with all of the advances scientists still do not know how the components of a cell work together to create cell functioning. What we do know is that we need all of the parts to create the whole. In the same vein, we may need all parts of outdoor programming, including nature. In her introduction to Wilderness Therapy for Women: the power of adventure, Cole (1994) makes the connection that being in nature strengthens the therapeutic work, “what nurtures and heals the individual also nurtures and heals the planet” (p. 3). Cole, Beringer, Mitten, and others are in essence alluding to ecopsychology a term coined by Robert Greenway in his 1963 essay (Greenway, 1999).
Theoretical concepts and underpinning theories
Ecopsychology is a blending of environmental philosophy, ecology and psychology that has evolved into a growing body of knowledge that explores how our psychological health is related to the ecological health of the planet. It is believed that the mind can be comforted and healed through time in natural environments. Therefore the destruction of the natural environment negatively affects the physical and mental health of humans. The paradigm of ecopsychology supports the healing value that occurs when people are outdoors, including the work of outdoor professionals in organized camping, adventure education, and wilderness and adventure therapy and supports the work of environmental educators in helping people learn how to take care of earth.
Edith Cobb’s work is an example of early research supporting ecopsychology and demonstrating this connection between healthy human development and nature. Cobb, trained in social work in the 1950s with an interest in the natural world, child development, and adult psychology, undertook a massive research project wherein she collected and analyzed more than 250 autobiographies. In The Ecology of Imagination in Children Cobb (1977) establishes the importance of children’s deep experience of the natural world to their adult cognition and psychological well-being. She suggests that a sense of place (a tree, a stream, a knoll) is vital to a child's evolving personality and makes a connection between happy childhood experiences and time in nature and adult creativity (Cobb, 1977). Chawla (2002) expanded on Cobb’s work and reinforces the importance of children spending time in the natural world in an unthreatening way that encourages a bond based on connection rather than on fear. An overwhelming majority of the environmentalists whom Chawla interviewed experienced “positive experiences of natural environments in childhood and adolescence, and family role models who demonstrated an attentive respect for the natural world” (Chawla, 2002, p. 212).
The concept of ecopsychology has a long history as described in women’s outdoor travel literature and has been practiced at least since the 1970s by women’s outdoor programs in the U.S. Women have found nature to be healing, were prone to find a sense of place, and felt spiritually connected to the land. As a result women tended to have a mutual healing relationship with nature, notably exemplified by Julia Butterfly Hill who spent over 700 days living in a California Redwood tree to prevent loggers from the Pacific Lumber Company from cutting it down. Hill later was inducted in to the Ecology Hall of Fame for those efforts and her continuing work to heal the rift between humans and nature (Weiss, 2003).
The dominant culture’s attitude towards nature as something to be used or conquered was destructive and belittling to both women and the land. Women realized that women and men could heal in tandem with the environment and that the marginalization of both women and the environment was connected. By the 1990s, the concept of ecopychology and our need to heal and be healed by the planet had become more widespread. Today ecopychology has developed into a discipline with college textbooks, such as Deborah Du Nann Winter's (1996) Ecological Psychology: Healing the Split between Planet and Self, and degrees offered at universities such as in Colorado. From Naropa University’s webpage ecopsychology is based on the belief that “human health, identity and sanity are intimately linked to the health of the earth and must include sustainable and mutually enhancing relationships between humans and the nonhuman world” (Naropa University, 2009).
The synergistic relationship between personal wellbeing and planetary wellbeing may have an evolutionary history as described in the biophilia hypothesis. Building on the work of early ecology pioneers such as Rachael Carson, E. O. Wilson (1984) asserted that there is the existence of a biologically based, inherent human need to affiliate with life and lifelike processes. He went on to say that human identity and personal fulfillment depend on our relationship to nature as does human’s positive emotional, cognitive, aesthetic and spiritual development. Therefore, people’s success in their search for a coherent and fulfilling existence depends on their relationship to nature. A part of this theory is that a measured or healthy fear of some parts of the natural world is essential for humans’ survival. Called biophobic, considerable evidence from clinical psychology and psychiatry supports that the majority of phobic occurrences involve strong fears about things or situations that have threaten humans throughout evolution, such as snakes, spiders, heights, closed spaces, and blood. Therefore there is a balance of respect or healthy fear of some aspects of nature and the human capacity to experience a sense of nature’s magnificence and wonder. Ecopsycology and much of the research about the healing power of nature support the biophilia hypothesis. The author would be remiss not to also mention that E.O. Wilson has been highly criticized for his earlier theory of sociobiology, wherein he claimed that biology was destiny even to the point that the males of species were acting out of biology when they raped females. While Wilson continues to defend sociobiology, his maturity and development as an ecologist is significant and today he is a leading proponent of biodiversity preservation. Additionally, Wilson (2001) has endorsed a socio-ecological approach to human health and the collaboration among scientists and policy makers.
Socio-ecological approach to human health
A socio-ecological approach to human health is a third major underpinning to the concept of nature and healing. In a socio-ecological approach to human health it is believed health results from an interwoven relationship between people and their environment. Human health is influenced by intrapersonal, interpersonal, organizational, community and environmental factors, including the natural environment and then policy influences and creates further interdependencies that impact health (McLeroy, Bibeau, Steckler, & Glanz, 1988). Improvements in health may require interventions and changes, such as changes in policies at each or some levels or changes in personal health management. While similar to ecopsychology, a socio-ecological approach works to connect public policy (and public policy makers), community structures, organizations, individuals, and nature. Since environmental factors, including the natural environment are components in the socio-ecological approach, this model necessarily looks at the relationship between people and the natural environment. Natural spaces, including public-owned parks, play a key role in a socio-ecological approach to health because these environments encourage and enable people to relate to each other and the natural world (Maller, Townsend, Pryor, Brown, & St Leger, 2006).
As early as 1986 the World Health Organization proclaimed that health care is not separate from caring for the environment. The Ottawa Charter for Public health Promotion, created at an international conference on health promotion in Ontario, Canada, calls for a socio-ecological approach to health management, including environmental protection in the name of health reform (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2008). The theory behind the socio-ecological approach to health management is that human behavior is a consequence of transactions among multiple levels and ensuring health and well being requires political commitment and a multidisciplinary approach. As disciplines begin to overlap and policy makers from environmental, psychology, landscape architecture, medical, and urban planning backgrounds collaborate a truer understanding of the need, potential, and practice of socio-ecological approach to health management and promotion will result.
People in many different disciplines understand the healing power of nature and have engaged in research about this human nature connection. The social sciences have perhaps done the most research about measurable benefits humans experience from contact with nature. Fields that have been examined as part of the author’s research include biology, cognitive science, developmental psychology, ecology, ecopsychology, education, environmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, landscape architecture, medical, political science, psychiatry, psychology, public health, social psychology, social work, sociology, and urban planning. In many of the fields or disciplines mentioned above, research about the impact of nature on health and wellbeing is a small part of that discipline. The magic happens when one looks at the research from all of these disciplines and realizes that the body of research is significant. Using this body of knowledge Mitten (2004) proposed that intentional health care work by outdoor leaders could help to such a medical significance that wilderness therapy and adventure therapy ought to be classified as a complementary modality in the National Institute for Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) classification in the mind-body interventions, biologically-based therapies and the energy therapies domains.
The figure below categorizes many of the benefits from spending time in nature.
Vitamin D (lowers blood pressure, decreases risk of colon, prostrate, and pancreatic cancers)
Increases calcium uptake
Better diet (kids who garden eat more vegetables)
Immune system strengthening (kids who play outside have stronger immune systems)
Decreases the effects of jet lag
Increases life expectancy
Provides opportunities for exercise
Lowers systolic blood pressure
Reduces avoidable disease risk factors
Reduces cancer risk
Reduces osteoporosis risk
Improves mood states
Reduces anger and anxiety
Enhances feelings of pleasure
Increases mental acuity (kids who grow plants scored 12% higher on academic tests)
Reduces mental fatigue
Improve problem solving ability and concentration
Improves body image for women
Reduces the impact of stress
Increases feelings of empowerment
Encourages nurturing characteristics
Decreases risk of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
Mitigate impact of dementia, including Alzheimer’s
Gives children a sense of peace and oneness with the world
Sparks creativity and imagination
Inspires connections with the wider world
Increases a sense of wonder
Quiets the mind
Strengthens family relations
Decrease domestic violence
Strengthens neighborhood ties
Assists new immigrants cope with transition
Cost effective health promotion
Environmental economics – increases preference for environmental quality over other goods
Increases environmental activism
Increases park planning
Stimulates social interactions among children
While outdoor practitioners like to be outdoors, not all of them have understood the tremendous value of nature for human health and development. However, because our work takes place in the outdoors, outdoor educators, knowingly or unknowingly, work with nature to do such things as help in recovery or attention restoration, help people engage and be involved in environmental protection, and help people create a sense of place, as well as stimulate adventure. Over the years practitioners have relied more and more on activities and techniques in their work and many do not understand the health and developmental benefits of “being in nature”. Outdoor educators are in a unique position to help people from the participant to the funding level, understand that we need nature and nature needs us. Harm to nature is harm to oneself and that tending to nature is tending to oneself and the entire human race.
Bardwell, L. (1992). A bigger piece of the puzzle: The restorative experience and outdoor education. In Henderson (Ed.) Coalition for education in the outdoors: Research symposium proceeding (pp. 15-20). Bradford Woods, IN: Coalition for education in the outdoors.
Beringer, A. and Martin. P. (2003). On adventure therapy and the natural worlds: Respecting nature's healing, Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 3(1), 29 - 39
Camp Lohikan. (2009). Camp Lohikan home page. Retrieved April 15, 2009, from Camp Lohikan: http://www.lohikan.com/
Cobb, E. (1977). The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. NY: Columbia University Press, 23. Reprinted 1993; Spring Publications.
Cole, E. Erdman, E. Rothblum, E. (Eds). (1994). Wilderness Therapy for Women: The Power of Adventure. New York: Harrington Press.
Du Nann Winter, D. (1996). Ecological Psychology: Healing the Split between Planet and Self. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers.
Fox, K. M., & Reed, M. (1994). Learning about ethical leadership. In L. McAvoy, L. A. Stringer & A. Ewert (Eds), The coalition for education in the outdoors second research symposium proceedings (pp. 53-65). Cortland, NY: State University of New York College at Cortland.
Greenway, R. (1999). “Ecopsychology: A personal history.” Gatherings, 1, Winter.
Griffin, S. (1980). Women and Nature. New York, NY: Harper Colophon.
Harvard Magazine. (2009, February 18). Video: Sanatorium Scenes. Retrieved April 15, 2009, from Harvard Magazine: http://harvardmagazine.com/extras/video-sanatorium-scenes
Knapp, C. (1999) In Accord with Nature: Helping Students Form an Environmental Ethic Using Outdoor Experience and Reflection. ERIC/Clearinghouse on Rural education and Small schools.
Louise Chawla, L. (2002). Spots of Time: Manifold Ways of Being in Nature in Childhood. In Kahn and Kellert (Eds), Children and Nature, (pp. 199-225). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Maller, C., Townsend, M., Pryor, A., Brown, P., & St Leger, L. (2006). Healthy nature healthy people: 'contact with nature' as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations. Health promotion international, 21(1), 45-54.
Matthews, B. E. (1996). Teaching and evaluating outdoor ethics programs: setting a research agenda. In L. McAvoy, L. A. Stringer, M. D. Bialeschki, & A. Young (Eds), Coalition for education in the outdoors third research symposium proceedings. (pp. 143-144). Cortland, NY: State University of New York College at Cortland.
McAvoy, L. (1990a). An environmental ethic for parks and recreation. Parks and Recreation, (25)9, 68-72.
McLeroy, K. R., Bibeau, D., Steckler, A., & Glanz, K. (1988). An ecological perspective on health promotion programs. Health Education Quarterly, 15(4), 351-377.
Mitten, D. (1994). Ethical Considerations in Adventure Therapy: A Feminist Critique. In E. Cole, E. Erdman, E. Rothblum (Eds), Wilderness Therapy for Women: The Power of Adventure (pp. 55-84). New York: Harrington Press.
Mitten, D. (2004). Adventure Therapy as Complementary and Alternative Therapy. In S. Bandoroff and S. Newes (Eds), Coming of Age: The evolving field of adventure therapy (pp. 240 – 257). Boulder, CO: Association of Experiential Education.
Naropa University. (2009). What is Ecopsychology? Retrieved March 21, 2009, from Naropa University: http://www.naropa.edu/academics/graduate/psychology/tcp/ecoc/what.cfm
Public Health Agency of Canada. (2008, December 8). Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion: An International Conference on Health Promotion. Retrieved March 2, 2009, from Public Health Agency of Canada: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/ph-sp/docs/charter-chartre/index-eng.php
Simpson, S. (1996) A Leopold for the Nineties: The Ecological Age and Outdoor Recreation. Journal of Experiential Education, (19)1, 14-21.
Wattchow, B. (2001). Outdoor Education as the Experience of Place. Education Outdoors—Our Sense of Place (pp. 127-147). The 12th National Outdoor Education Conference Proceedings, The Victorian Outdoor Education Association.
Weiss, D. (2003, May 3). Ecology Hall of Fame. Retrieved April 15, 2009, from Ecotopia.org: http://www.ecotopia.org/ehof/index.html
Wilson, E. (2001). Nature matters. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, (20)3, 241-242.