Published in the Toronto Star November 12, 2016
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” ~John Muir (1838–1914)
Mindfulness. Prayerfulness. Meditation. All good ideas. But I have a better one: a walk in the park.
Remember when your Mom shoved you out the door and said, “Go play” followed by “be back for dinner” or words to that effect? There is now growing evidence that she was doing us a great favour.
According to Michael Grothaus, an American journalist who currently lives in London England, there is much to be gained by taking a daily one hour walk in the park. After reading about the many benefits of park-walking and exposure to nature generally, he started to walk the green parks near his home in central London on a daily basis. He discovered that he not only felt much better physically and mentally but that there were many other benefits including:
1. Stress melted away. “On one of my first walks thorough London’s Regent’s and Hyde Parks I immediately felt less stressed and less rushed.” It’s as if the park acted like a cocoon, providing a warm blanket for thoughts to move away from the very issues that were creating the stress.
- Mood improved. By the second week, Mr. Grothaus began to notice that his ‘overall everyday’ mood improved, even when he was not in the park with nature. As he puts it, “if a 300-pound person loses one pound, he’s still overweight. But lose one pound a week and the benefits start to really add up overall.” Mood-boosts accrued with other benefits that were greater than the sum of their parts.
- Boosted Creativity. By his third week of pounding through the park (and visiting the English coast on weekends) it was easier for him to generate story ideas, an essential part of his journalistic work. Perhaps there is something in this for journalists at the Toronto Star?
4. Memory Improvement. For years Mr. Grothaus made daily to-do lists and framed his computer with post-it notes. No more. “By the fourth week I found that I no longer needed to write these notes.” He could keep mental lists in his head that he accessed at any time.
School is Out
The benefits of being out of doors are not exclusive to adults. In Great Britain, there is growing interest in getting school kids out of the classroom where they can learn more. To be accurate, evidence now suggests that kids not only learn more in the outdoor environment but they are more creative and remember more. Do you see a pattern here?
The Natural Connections Demonstration Project is the latest to add its results to worldwide academic research that show that teaching outdoors improves skills in children, from memory and attention span to resilience, teamwork and problem solving.
According to The Garden magazine, the four-year project involved 40,000 students and 2,000 teachers in 125 primary and secondary schools across the southwest of England. Teachers took as many lessons as they could out of doors into school grounds, local parks and other open, green spaces. Teachers were encouraged to take risks and be more creative as they sought outdoor areas to teach.
“This is something that does not cost much money; it’s very easily done. It’s just a slight shift in culture and mindset – and the benefits are massive.” Exclaims John Golfing, Deputy Head of Torpoint Community College in Cornwall.
Currently 75 percent of all secondary schools in the U.K. are registered with the Royal Horticultural Society Campaign for School Gardening. Sue Waite, education assessor at Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) said “In their early years children have a thirst for learning and we are trying not to turn that switch off by schooling.” She adds, “(U.K.) schools are seeing that being outdoors does not just benefit learning but also health and wellbeing.”
Barriers to progress in the field of outdoor education include a lack of Government acknowledgment that it is a good idea. Sue said, “If universal access to outdoor learning is the goal, it needs to be enshrined in policy.”
Here in Canada we could say the same thing. But first, we need to acknowledge that outdoor education is a good idea. It seems to me that we have plenty of not-for-profit organisations that are already committed to the concept, like Evergreen Brick Works and local Conservation authorities. Poised to give the idea an additional push up the political agenda are highly credible organisations like the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the David Suzuki Foundation, Bird Studies Canada and International Conservation Fund of Canada to name just a few.
What if all of these organisations sat around the table and answered this one question: What more can we do together to encourage educators and government to get kids outdoors during the school day? I wonder what they would come up with.
I have a table. You are welcome here.
We could open the windows to take a breath of fresh mindfulness before we begin.