5 Ways to Get More Nature into Your Life

TV shows bring lion hunts and exotic frogs into our living rooms, but we spend less time outdoors enjoying the real natural world.

April 23, 2009

The Discovery Channel/BBC documentary Planet Earth has developed a cult following. Movies like March of the Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth have been Oscar-winning blockbusters. And our kids have become masters of computer games that take them on hikes, send them on wild adventures, and build entire ecosystems. But in spite of all this technological nature, we are spending less time interacting with real nature and much less time outdoors than our ancestors did. Which is a shame, considering that research shows that experiencing real nature is a natural stress buster.

“Getting to the zoo, watching Animal Planet—these are all pieces of our modern experience of nature, and they encourage us to protect nature,” notes Jolina Ruckert, a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Washington who studies the effects of nature on stress. “But we’re losing the wild experience of being out in it.” This is an especially disturbing trend for kids. “What we experience as a child is the baseline we set for what we define as nature,” she says. Some researchers have termed this increasing lack of exposure as “environmental generational amnesia.” Essentially, children who now don’t get outside much won’t, as adults, think it’s abnormal to spend all day indoors. Kids are spending so little time outdoors that they’re experiencing adverse effects such as higher rates of obesity and diabetes. To counter this trend, the National Environmental Education Foundation is teaming up with the National Audubon Society to launch a “Prescribing Nature” campaign, designed to educate pediatricians on the importance of actually prescribing outdoor time for their nature-starved patients.

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Here are five easy ways to bring more nature into your family’s life:

1. Do outside whatever you usually do inside.
Whether it’s your morning yoga routine or eating dinner in your kitchen, many of the things we do inside are easily transferable to the outdoors. Dine on your patio or porch and listen to the breeze and birds. Take your laptop outside and pay your bills online—and feel less stressed while managing your money. An experiment undertaken by Ruckert and her psychology professor Peter Kahn found that experiencing real nature—even just grass and tress—lowers heart rates and stress levels. (They also found that hi-res videos of nature scenes don’t produce the same positive effects.)

2. Have a yard sale.
Who couldn’t use a few extra bucks these days? Get to know your neighbors and unload some of the clutter in your life while spending time listening to the birds and smelling the spring flowers. You can advertise the sale for free on Craigslist.org or Freecycle.org, or just spring for a paid ad on a local website. Check with your local government to see if you need a permit and if you need to follow advertising signage regulations.

3. Try a “moving meeting.”
Now that the weather is warming up, every cubicle-dwelling office worker yearns for a few minutes outside on a beautiful day. Recently, professors at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis came up with the idea of “Meetings on the Move” to get office workers out from behind their desks. Replacing a conventional sit-down meeting with an outdoor walk-and-talk not only gives employees the benefit of exercise; the change of scenery usually can spur more creative ideas. (Watch our video for tips on organizing a moving meeting.)

4. Try a treasure hunt.
Spending time in your backyard is great, says Ruckert. “But that doesn’t replace the real wild form of nature, the space where you have to react and encounter wild animals.” To ramp up the nature quotient of your outdoor time, develop a hobby that will take you into a wilder place. Examples include hiking, bird-watching, and orienteering. One of our favorites is geocaching, in which you use a GPS unit to find items that have been hidden in containers outdoors all over the world. For more info on geocaching, see www.geocaching.com.

5. Clean up a roadway or stretch of river.
The best way to enjoy nature is to get involved in preserving it. The location can be as tame or as wild as you wish—just don’t forget the bug spray. Find a river to adopt at www.livinglandsandwaters.org or check with your local department of environmental conservation or park service to find volunteer opportunities building or maintaining nearby trails.