Currents of Change: Inspiring, Creating, Transforming

Currents of Change: Inspiring, Creating, Transforming

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Children & Nature- A Healthy Combination

By N. Glenn Perrett, Author

You don't need studies to realize that children aren't receiving the same amount of exercise or wilderness experiences that past generations have benefited from. However, studies do confirm this. A Statistics Canada (in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada) survey in 2007 found that in recent decades the health of Canadian children has deteriorated while childhood obesity has risen and physical fitness has declined.

When it comes to nature experiences, many children have replaced outdoor play and exercise with electronics including video games, social networking, and text messages to friends. This disconnect with nature and its consequences is addressed by Richard Louv in his books Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder.

There are many health benefits associated with nature that we know of - and surely many others that haven't been discovered yet. Studies indicate that nature can help those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Nature is also attributed to reducing stress and depression as well as improving our ability to concentrate to name only a few mental health benefits. Our family certainly experienced the benefits of regular nature excursions as we spent the last two years hiking wilderness areas for my book Hikes & Outings of South-Central Ontario. No matter what state of mind we were in when we arrived at the natural area we were about to explore-and we were often tired or stressed-we were in a wonderful frame of mind shortly after hitting the scenic trails or exploring a wetland.

Nature also has benefits for our physical health. Studies have shown that patients with a view of nature spend less time in the hospital compared to patients who didn't have a view of nature during their hospital stay. In their recently published book Your Brain on Nature (Wiley) Eva M. Selhub, MD and Alan C. Logan, ND cited a study published in the journal Science. The study pertained to patients in a Pennsylvania hospital from 1972 to 1981 who had surgery to remove their gallbladder. One side of the hospital featured windows with a view of a small forest while the other looked at bricks. According to the authors, "...those who had an outdoor view to trees had significantly shorter hospital stays and fewer postsurgical complaints. They also used less-potent analgesic medications (aspirin instead of narcotics)."

Of course spending time in nature usually involves hiking and other forms of exercise which have many health benefits including preventing heart disease, lowering cholesterol levels, and controlling and preventing diabetes. The benefits of exercising, particularly exercising in nature, even has the medical community considering prescribing exercise as a way for their patients to get healthier. There is even a "Park Prescriptions" program in the United States where the National Park Service works with health care professionals. Working with the park to come up with appropriate activities and trails for the patient, health care providers write prescriptions for their patients to walk, bicycle, paddle, or do some other exercise. One of the places where these nature prescriptions occur is Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore which features 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline along with 15,000 acres of beach, woods, marshes, and prairies in Indiana.

With nature providing valuable environmental lessons and health benefits, school boards could incorporate more field trips to conservation areas and other wilderness spaces to ensure both their students' education and health mandates are attained. In fact I can see a time in the near future when parks, schools and health care providers work together to meet our children's health needs.

N. Glenn Perrett and his family live in a natural setting in the Township of Mulmur. They explored many wilderness areas, including numerous conservation areas, for his book Hikes & Outings of South-Central Ontario (Lone Pine Publishing).

Thursday, 13 September 2012

How to beat the heat and bring nature into the equation

By Jode Roberts, Communication Specialist at David Suzuki Foundation  

Imagine a sleek contraption for your backyard so powerful it has the cooling effect of 10 air conditioners, quietly filters dust, allergens, and pollutants, runs for free on solar power, and its only byproduct is oxygen. 

Dream no longer. This elegant machine is a healthy, mature tree.
Using only energy from sunlight, a tree can soak up almost 400 litres of water from the ground each day, and cool the surrounding air through transpiration. Trees absorb airborne contaminants and breathe out clean oxygen. They’re such efficient air filters that Columbia University researchers estimate that for every 343 trees added to a square kilometre, asthma rates in young people drop by about 25 per cent. 

What else can these handy natural contraptions do for us? The US Forest Service says trees near buildings can reduce air-conditioning needs by a third and, because they break the wind, can save up to half the energy used for heating. According to the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture, mature tree canopies reduce the air temperature of urban areas between five and 10 degrees Celsius.

Imagine replacing these ecological services with human-built substitutes. While we can easily handle cooling a room or building, creating a city-sized air conditioning unit that could reduce the temperature of an urban area by 10 degrees is an almost unimaginable engineering feat that would require massive amounts of energy. 

These types of sophisticated services that nature provides are not only misunderstood and under-appreciated; they tend to be ignored in modern economics and urban planning. When a forest or wetland is converted to another use, decision-makers tend to focus on traditional metrics like infrastructure costs, property values, and future contributions to the tax roll. 

Thus, we continue to deplete natural resources and degrade nature in and around urban areas, failing to recognize the contribution of ecosystem services – like clean air, fresh water, and cooling – to the economy and health of communities. 

While economists, ecologists, and decision-makers grapple with how to estimate an appropriate economic value for nature’s benefits, I am hopeful that the field will spur communities to consider the true value of their natural riches. In the meantime, we should all pitch in and help beat the heat by investing in natural capital in our own backyards – a tree for your yard or park. 

For more information about natural capital, check out   

Jode Roberts is a Communications Specialist in the Toronto office of the David Suzuki Foundation. He is also a speaker in the 2012 Latornell Symposium session "Value Smart: Raising Awareness of Nature's Benefits". 

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