Noticing nature – pathways to health

Keith Savage says new research reveals getting switched on to nature is vital for well-being

The evidence that it is ‘good’ for us to be outside, in touch with nature, is widely understood and accepted. It benefits us physically and it can help relieve stress, promoting mental well-being. What is less well understood are the different aspects of ‘nature connectedness’ open to us and the positive impact that connection may have on our engagement with nature itself.

The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby, led by Professor Miles Richardson, has been exploring these issues and suggesting policy implications. The group is also engaged in partnerships to turn research findings into practical interventions.

Typically if we take part in any education programmes about the natural world the content is very much fact-based. We might learn something about the life-cycle of butterflies and identify some common species. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it tends to leave out our emotional engagement with the natural world. We are encouraged to become experts whilst the psychological, perhaps more fleeting, connections are seen as superficial.

The Derby team is keen to establish the positive mental and emotional benefits of connecting with nature. The evidence suggests that it is not necessary to spend lots of time in exotic locations; rather than being ‘in nature’ it matters more to ‘notice nature’. Five distinct pathways have been identified that “activate people’s connection with nature”.

Taking care to use all the available senses could be a starting point. You might see or hear a bird, or catch a scent. You don’t need to know precisely what you are sensing to be intrigued by it, to be curious. Attending to the good things around you – new budding plants, lambs or ducklings – can generate feelings of joy and calm. Many people now have the use of smartphones capable of capturing good quality images, making it possible to share the beauty of the natural world. Even from your home it is possible to use artworks, stories or music that celebrate the seasons or significant moments in the natural world. Finally, it might be possible to act in ways that care about nature, such as providing food or habitats.

Whilst all of this might be available to individuals to choose and act upon, there is a role for policy makers to help create more possibilities and opportunities – especially for those who may feel uncertain about how to connect with nature. The Derby team has detailed how many aspects of public policy making could enhance community connectedness with nature. Often these are not necessarily expensive choices and, crucially, they also lead to improved outcomes for the natural environment.

For example, workplaces could be encouraged to create more wildlife-friendly spaces – feeding birds, providing nest boxes, growing insect-attractive plants. This would benefit birds and insects, encourage people to take an active interest in their environment and would promote pro-environmental behaviours beyond the workplace. Alternatively, activities that involved ‘noticing nature’ could be prescribed by health and social care practitioners as a treatment for some with mental health needs.

Derby’s Nature Connectedness Group is currently collaborating with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) and the Bronze Oak Project Ltd. Their partnership is called The Oak Project and over the next five years the project will pioneer arts participation to create kinship with nature.

Charlie Burrell, owner of the Knepp rewilding project says: “We are living in an environmental crisis. The science is unequivocal – unless we take drastic action, and soon, we face both ecological and climate collapse. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how rapidly change can happen in response to a crisis, and how quickly nature can recover when given space to do so. We need to build upon these glimmers of hope and work to rebalance our relationship with the natural world for the long term, and we’re excited about the role the arts can play within this.”

Miles Richardson adds: “Wildlife loss and climate crisis show our relationship with nature is failing. When people are connected to nature, they are much more likely to do more to help the environment. These pro-environmental behaviours could be anything from buying a reusable coffee cup, recycling waste, feeding the birds and planting wildflowers through to signing petitions or joining a ‘clean-up’ activity. Nature connection is key to a more sustainable lifestyle and a new relationship with nature.”

Clare Lilley, Director of Programme at the YSP says: “The Oak Project is extremely well placed and timed to create positive action in response to climate-anxiety and compromised mental health highlighted by Covid-19. The aftershock of the pandemic will be with us for many months, if not years, and the Oak Project will sit precisely in this period – giving people access to art and nature in a way that will support mental, physical and spiritual health as well as catalysing terrific new projects by practicing artists.”

The University of Derby is offering a free online course, ‘Nature Connectedness: For a new relationship with nature’. More info can be found at Professor Miles Richardson tweets at @findingnature.

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