The Nature Fix

Author Florence Williams talks to us about getting kids outside

Writer Florence Williams’ new book The Nature Fix looks at the evidence behind our need for nature. While facts and figures make interesting reading when it comes to reasons to get out kids outside more, here at The Wild Network what we really love are ideas and inspiration to help us take the step from knowing the facts to doing something different. In this book Florence does this while taking us around the world visiting the places where nature is being used effectively in health treatments; where green city design works; and where the future might be in living a nature-full life.

We particularly like the combination of nature and technology enabling those living in dense cities to experience the healing properties of nature locally. The fake trees in Singapore with real vegetation on them are worth Googling themselves! (Alright, we’ve done it for you).  

Natalie Johnson spoke to Florence about Wild Time, child time & nature time.

You’re a travel/adventure writer, was there a particular trip that was the catalyst for the book?

Yes, in 2012, Outside Magazine sent me to Japan to write about forest bathing, or shinrin yoku. The forest agency there has been promoting since the 1980s as a way for people to reduce stress. It essentially involves hanging out in the woods, on ‘therapy trails’, drinking in the environment through all five senses. And researchers have been busy measuring its effects, including a drop in blood pressure and cortisol stress hormones. That really launched the book.

In your research travels what were the most unexpected results that stick in your memory?

I was very moved to see the horticulture therapy sites of Denmark and Sweden, recognised as a very effective intervention for depression, as well as the delightful forest kindergartens of Scotland and Sweden. I was probably most moved by a wilderness river trip I took with women veterans suffering from PTSD. They found 6 days in the wilds helped them sleep better, feel less anxious, and enjoy themselves socially more than they had in a long time. Most surprising, though, were the studies showing that experiencing awe expands our sense of time and makes us behave more generously to one another.

There are so many varying barriers to outside play, for kids. What do you think is perhaps the easiest one to start with for modern parents?

I’d say making it a fun and social endeavour. Going outside with other families is fun for everyone. The kids can play, the parents can relax. And bring plenty of snacks!

Many kids we speak to would love to play outside, but parents haven’t time or the kids are scheduled so much. What do you think would give parents ‘permission’ to unschedule time for today’s kids to play in nature?

I think the studies are really powerful showing that kids thrive when they get unstructured, free time to play. It might be a helpful transition for parents to sign kids up for ‘organised’ time outside, like through camps or afters school programs where there can be a responsible adult and some supervision, but also time to let kids build shelters or toss stones or run around together.

What would your advice be to kids who say their parents don’t have time to take them outside?

Gather up a big group of friends so that you have safety in numbers and remind your parents they got to play outside as kids!

I love your reference at the end to the bad snow storms last winter and nature taking back the neighbourhood, forcing everyone to connect again. Are community programs the key to nature connection?

I think communities are important, but so are institutions like schools and so are families. I do think that peer pressure helps. If your friends and neighbours are doing it, you’re more likely to do it. The more programs and advocates and NGOs and schools diving in, the better. Everyone needs to get involved.

You say that trees could be the single best tool in our urban salvation. What makes you think that?

Trees provide so much: pollution reduction, visual relaxation, habitat for birds, shade, awe, beauty, colour. There is good data on trees, and we are an evidence-based society, so we should take the data seriously.

We’d love to hear about some of the best places/ideas/ways that you’ve seen to help free-up kids from the schedules and pressures of life to get outside?

I’m a big fan of camps and after school programs. I’d also like to see the schools themselves reinstitute more recess and play time outside. And parents need to get outside more too. Then they will remember how much they like it and take their children with them! Having a dog to walk is always helpful and a fun family activity, as are picnics, sunset walks, star-gazing expeditions and camping out together.

It all starts with the children. If we can help them connect to nature while they are young, they will have a lifetime of rewards in comfort and delight in the outdoors.

Florence Williams is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a freelance writer. She’s written two books. Find out more at Florence Williams online or on Facebook

 The Nature Fix by Florence Williams is out now & available from W.W. Norton & Company Ltd, at £20.

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