Some of us have jobs that keep us outside a lot. Most of us don’t. We need to take part in some kind of outdoor recreation to spend more than a few minutes outside at a time. It turns out that being in nature offers many health benefits, including mental health benefits.
According to a 2009 Pew Internet Project report, 93% of teens and 77% of adults spent time online. Other studies at about the same time found that more young children knew how to open a web browser or play electronic games than could ride a bike or swim. A declining number of people engaged in such outdoor activities as camping, hiking, or visiting national parks.
If anything, the percentages of people online must be higher today. COVID-19 has pushed education, work, and many social activities online. Parents’ fear of germs in part explains why they structure children’s activities so much nowadays. And it certainly explains why governments shut down children’s playgrounds.
Yet research has shown many benefits of spending time in nature, especially for children:
- Outdoor activities help achieve better fitness and overall physical health.
- Spending time in nature reduces stress and helps get better sleep.
- Nature also helps with mental health issues—not the least because it doesn’t have medicine’s side effects or any social stigma.
- You can also get social benefits if you spend at least some of your outdoor recreation time with other people.
On the other hand, children deprived of early opportunities to spend time in nature may develop an aversion to it. They may disdain and even fear whatever is not manmade. They may come to view nature as a disposable resource that exists only for human benefit. And overuse of disposables harms us all.
People who live in cities or suburbs can easily think that nature somehow means something distant and foreign. It can feel like nature is something to go to, which takes effort. Yellowstone National Park is nature, and how often can most of us get there?
But if you live in a house, you have a yard. Plants of some kind grow in it. Animals live there, or at least visit. Pay attention. Look at the colors and shapes. Touch. Smell. Any outdoor activity gives you the experience of nature.
Gardening lets you get your hands in the dirt and take care of other living things. And if you grow herbs and vegetables in your garden, you can enjoy eating them. Your children will learn that food grows. It doesn’t magically appear at the store. Even if you don’t garden, you can take the time and effort to notice the teeming variety of life just outside your doorstep.
I have to do yard work and don’t much enjoy it. I especially dislike shoveling snow off my driveway. It helps if, before I start, I take time to look around. Snow is beautiful on the ground. It’s a different kind of beautiful on trees and shrubbery. It’s usually overcast in the winter, but sometimes the skies are clear and sunny. That’s beautiful, too.
What if you live in an apartment? Spending time in nature is still easy. You probably still live near where you can see flowers and grass and trees. And the birds and squirrels that hang around in them.
Whether you live in a house or not, you can find parks without leaving town. Are there rivers, creeks, lakes, or ponds near where you live? Enjoy them.
Redefining outdoor recreation
When you think of outdoor recreation, do you think of team sports or expensive, time-consuming activities such as golf, tennis, fishing, or hunting? You don’t have to go to that extent to enjoy the outdoors. I mentioned gardening. You don’t have to do that, either.
With stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues shut down, more people may have at least gotten outside to walk more. Some people run or jog. But just taking a walk and noticing your surroundings provides an easy way to reconnect with nature. And it still has health benefits.
Outdoor recreation is anything you find to do outside that can give you some pleasure. Even sitting out on the porch—if you’re lucky enough to have one—gives you the benefits of spending time in nature.
It gets you out of the house and away from screens. It all re-creates you. Remember all the benefits of nature. They’re yours, and they’re free.
Specific ways to reconnect with nature
The relentless push to hurry along adds unnecessary stress to your life. Reconnecting with nature means slowing down and paying attention to what’s around you.
In return, it takes away stress, and along with it, depression and anxiety.
When you get back to your activities, you’ll make better decisions and find more creative solutions to your problems.
Take time to notice plants and animals, clouds rolling by, and so on. Look at colors, textures, shapes.
At night, look up in the sky to see the moon and stars. In some cities with lots of light pollution, such as New York or Las Vegas, you might have to travel to the countryside to see much. Manmade light invades even the darkest places on Earth, but the night sky still displays splendor. All we have to do is look up and soak in the view.
Treat your ears to outdoor recreation. Of course, you’ll hear traffic sounds, lawnmowers, and other machines. But with little effort, you can hear birds singing and insects buzzing. And if you really listen, you’ll hear the wind in the trees, even if it’s just a gentle breeze.
At night (except in the dead of winter), listen for the music of the crickets and cicadas. Go to a stream and listen to the water flowing over rocks. Enjoy the serenity.
We all need some aerobic exercise every day. Why get all of it at the gym or exercising to videos? Take a brisk walk in your neighborhood. Visit local parks, especially the ones with trails.
If you walk in downtown areas, I hope the city has provided flower beds or trees somewhere.
Be sure to notice them as you walk past. Or stop a while. Brief pauses won’t ruin the aerobic benefits of this outdoor recreation.
Check out the texture of tree trunks, leaves, rocks, etc. with your fingers. Notice the breeze on your face and other exposed parts of your body.
In the springtime, new growth on pine trees and such is special. Lightly grasp a branch on the old growth and pull your hand toward you. Notice how delightfully much softer the new growth feels. (
Slow, mindful breathing benefits your spirit and body. Outside, it can help you pay closer attention to the natural wonders around you. Take time to smell flowers.
Take a notebook with you and take time to write about what you see. Or draw it. You don’t need literary skill or artistic talent. No one else has to see your handiwork. But pencil and paper can help you reconnect with nature.
10 ways to reconnect with nature in a time of isolation / Rebekah Ratcliff, Deschutes Land Trust. May 23, 2020
Why we must reconnect with nature / Renee Cho, Columbia University Earth Institute. May 26, 2011