Our Innate Need for Communion with Nature

In 1984, biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia.” According to Wilson, biophilia captures the idea that human beings, because of our evolutionary history so deeply interconnected with the nonhuman natural world, have an innate need to commune with nature.1 The concept of biophilia has been supported by a number of studies which demonstrate that people do better along a multitude of outcomes when connected to nature. For example, people show increased vitality at work if they have access to physical activity in nature during their free time;2 people recover from stress much more effectively if they can connect with nature;3 and older adults show improvements in physical fitness, cognitive ability, and socialization if they can garden.4 An informal online search for “favorite photographs for desktop wallpaper” will reveal a collection of beautiful nature images which, presumably, people use on their home and office computers while separated from the natural world. As human beings, we have a desire to surround ourselves with nature even when – or maybe especially when – confined to spaces that do not include it.

Our formal acknowledgement of this innate need, through Wilson, comes during an era when our day-to-day exposure to the nonhuman natural world is declining. According to the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects,5 55% of the world’s population currently resides in urban areas. By 2050, that number is expected to be 68%. (For comparison, in 1950 this number was 30%.)5 Indeed, urban dwelling – a relatively recent phenomenon in human history – has quickly become “the new normal”6 with no sign of slowing down. We must address the impact that urbanization has on our health and on our reverence for and relationship with the natural world.

Disconnected from Nature: Physical, Mental and Environmental Health Issues

Though influenced to dwell in urban areas by social and economic needs, we humans remain grafted by evolution to our innate desire for communion with nature. Our biophilia, in combination with our natural-world-impoverished living conditions, has led to a remarkable number of physical and mental health issues. For example, areas of “urban blight” (i.e., vacant lots and dilapidated buildings; see Breger7), are pockets of increased risk of stress and stress-related illnesses. These include cardiovascular disease,8,9 musculoskeletal, mental, respiratory, neurological, digestive diseases9 and premature mortality.10 Safety in these areas is also a concern: among children living in urban areas, issues of safety and accessibility turn many away from playing out of doors.11

Young children experience detrimental effects similar to those afflicting adults when confined to spaces that do not include nature. These spaces can include their schools and school yards, spaces in which children spend much of their time. Two decades after we were introduced to “biophilia”, author and journalist Richard Louv published his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods and popularized the term “nature-deficit disorder” (which he defined as “the human costs of alienation from nature… diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses”).12 Louv’s book brought the serious consequences of our disconnection into a fresh light, causing many to wonder what we are doing to ourselves and our children.

In addition to the direct mental and physical health impacts related to connection to and disconnection from nature, another public health issue is that lack of access to nature can affect children’s perceptions of normal and healthy food choices. Indeed, children who do not have exposure to green environments eat fewer fruits and vegetables than their peers who have such exposure.13

Separating humans from the nonhuman natural world clearly creates increased risk of a number of diseases and behaviors, from physical and mental health issues like cardiovascular disease and anxiety, to cognitive issues around attention, to nutritional choices. These issues can present in childhood and continue into adulthood. The ripple effects of these issues impact individuals, families and communities, as these interconnected systems struggle under the impact of social dysfunction and health care costs. Further still, the separation between human and nonhuman natural worlds also decreases individuals’ feelings of interdependence with nature, and subsequently decreases attitudes and behaviors related to caring for the natural environment.6

Environmental Identity

Given our relatively new plight as human beings slowly separating through urbanization from the nonhuman natural world, social science researchers have developed an interest in understanding how individuals form an environmental identity. The conceptual and operational definition of environmental identity has been developed extensively by social psychologist Susan Clayton, who describes it as, “one part of the way in which people form their self-concept: a sense of connection to some part of the nonhuman natural environment, based on history, emotional attachment, and/or similarity, that affects the ways in which we perceive and act toward the world; a belief that the environment is important to us and an important part of who we are.”14 Development of a strong environmental identity has origins in childhood exposure to the nonhuman natural world, and is connected to individuals’ attitudes and behaviors toward the natural world as adults. People with strong environmental identities recognize their interdependence with others, and focus on the needs of larger, interrelated systems of communities and ecosystems. Clayton’s research demonstrates that people with strong environmental identities are more likely to behave in ways that conserve the natural world, such as turning off lights when not in use or donating money to environmental organizations.14

Connection to Nature: Physical, Mental and Environmental Benefits

It is clear from a wealth of studies that disconnection from nature leads to health problems. But importantly, the inverse has also been observed: exposure to and interaction with nature has been shown to lead to many positive outcomes, including improvement in cognitive awareness, memory, and well-being, and decreased depression, boredom, loneliness, anxiety, and stress.15,16

McCurdy and colleagues note that green spaces, “become increasingly important as an outlet for physical activity and a means to sustain a healthy weight.”11 Children who spend time outdoors get more physical activity; every hour spent outdoors equates to 27 minutes a week of increased physical activity in children,17 and a randomized controlled trial of “green exercise” in adults by Pretty and colleagues18 found that physical activity conducted while viewing a pleasant “green” setting fostered synergistic health benefits related to blood pressure, self-esteem and mood, over and above physical activity itself. Studies also demonstrate that being in a natural environment allows us to replenish our attentional resources,19 a concept echoed throughout Louv’s Last Child in the Woods.12 Further, psychologists have established a connection between how strongly people value their experiences in nature and their intention to work to protect it,14 indicating that connections with nature inspire conservation attitudes and behaviors.

This is all good news for the health of our people and planet; we must only dedicate ourselves to learning further about and acting more on the best opportunities to foster engagement with nature.

Greening Projects

In concert with the developments in the social sciences around identity, attitudes, and behaviors toward the natural world, urban planners, sustainability engineers, and human rights and welfare workers, among others, are developing ways to reintroduce the natural world to urban areas. Regenerative development projects which, “tie together systems thinking, community engagement, and respect for place”20 have been studied by researchers in these fields and show promising results. In the last decades, journals such as Solutions, and centers such as The Alliance Center in Denver, Colorado, have developed as platforms to host conversation about challenges and opportunities for regenerative work, and to highlight projects and initiatives underway.

The regeneration of and related greening of urban environments can become an opportunity for meaningful interactions between humans and the nonhuman natural world, thus building stronger environmental identities among the humans residing in these spaces. Ultimately, such greening projects could both improve aspects of human health and inspire humans to care for their surrounding ecological systems.21 Hinds and Sparks22 make explicit the reciprocity of this relationship, noting that, “experience of the natural environment may be able to simultaneously promote affective well-being on the one hand and pro-environmental orientations on the other.”

Green School Grounds

Given the positive impact of interaction between humans and the nonhuman natural world, and the realization that this interaction will have the greatest potential for positive impacts on physical, mental, and environmental health if it takes place early in human development, it makes good sense to look for ways to increase exposure to the nonhuman natural world for school-aged children. In 1969, Edith Cobb recognized that children between 5-6 years of age and 11-12 years of age experience the natural world in a stronger and more intimate way than it is experienced in earlier or later stages of human development,23 indicating that that it is between the ages of 5 and 12 that children have the greatest potential for developing a deep appreciation of the nonhuman natural world that they can then carry into adulthood.

Fig. 1: Poster from the Children & Nature Network, 2016. Academic Outcomes of Green Schoolyards.

McCurdy and colleges, in their 2010 paper reviewing the impact of nature and outdoor activity on the health of children, posit that “green” school grounds – that is, grounds that offer access to trees, gardens, and nature trails – may encourage children to play more than do grounds of asphalt and turf, as those spaces facilitate sporting activities like basketball or soccer which, though appealing to some children, do not appeal to all children,11 and do not facilitate free or imaginative play.

Fig. 2: Poster from the Children & Nature Network, 2016. Mental Health Benefits of Green Schoolyards.

School Gardens and Garden-Based Learning

One method of greening school grounds that also offers innovative possibilities for educational opportunities is the development of gardens on the premises of public school grounds. These gardens provide exposure to the nonhuman natural world for children, and also provide a unique pedagogical opportunity for educators through garden-based learning (GBL). GBL is, in basic terms, “an instructional strategy that utilizes a garden as a teaching tool. The pedagogy is based on experiential education, which is applied in the living laboratory of the garden.”23 GBL draws theoretically from Gardner’s theory on multiple intelligences, Goldman’s theory on emotional intelligence, and Kolb’s work on experiential learning.23 GBL also draws from the socio-ecological model from Moore and Young that connects the simultaneity of a child’s three realms of experience: the physiological and psychological environment of body/mind, the sociological environment of interpersonal relationships and cultural values, and the external landscape of spaces, objects, and natural and built objects.23

The development of learning gardens has been prevalent world-wide, with gardens in the US, Canada, the UK, Sweden, Micronesia, Jamaica, Australia, Cuba, Costa Rica, Brazil, Ethiopia, India, and others.23 GBL is not new to the pedagogical landscape; the U.S. alone has seen repeated resurgences of GBL initiatives including ones dating to the early 20th century (1900-1930), the mid-20th century (1960-1970), and the late-20th century (1990-2000).23

Direct Impacts of GBL on Children’s Academic Performance, Relationships and Health

GBL in general offers young children a chance to learn about fresh foods (and can improve their attitudes towards vegetables),24 offer a setting for an engaging and interactive pedagogy for all school subjects, help children learn directly and experientially about natural systems and help them connect with the nonhuman natural world, and help foster connection within community by linking together students, teachers, parents, school staff and administrators, and local businesses or organizations.23

Studies of students who have participated in GBL demonstrate improvement in academic retention rates, feelings of empowerment, academic performance including math, sciences, social studies, arts and languages, and improved development of teamwork and cooperation.23

GBL has also been discussed as another means to address sedentary behavior and overweight and obesity in childhood. Storz and Heymann25 and Savoie-Roskos, Wengreen, and Durward13 review a number of studies that have investigated the effect of school gardens on childhood health and relationship with foods, noting that students with exposure to GBL demonstrate increased knowledge of foods, increased willingness to try different vegetables, and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Concluding Remarks

Urbanization poses challenges for maintaining our innate human need to connect with nature, and often leads to increased risk of physical and mental health issues, as well as social and environmental issues. Regenerative development, by greening our urban areas, offers the chance to restore some of our connection with the nonhuman natural world, and leads to improvements in personal and public health. Greening public school grounds specifically through the building of gardens offers an excellent opportunities to improve a host of issues relevant to the health and well-being of children growing up in urban areas. School learning gardens are built upon well-established theoretical concepts including Gardner’s multiple intelligences, Goldman’s emotional intelligence, Kolb’s experiential learning, and Moore and Young’s socio-ecological model. Research conducted on learning gardens indicates that these gardens: inspire more creative and imaginative play than do asphalt or concrete playgrounds; cultivate improvements in academic achievement, cognitive skills, and interpersonal skills; and address issues of mental and physical health and well-being by providing children with exposure to healthy fruits and vegetables. Finally, in addition to the positive impacts on health and well-being, school learning gardens also offer a space where children can interact with the nonhuman natural world and develop a stronger environmental identity. Children with exposure to school learning gardens may develop into adults who hold a deep sense of connection with and responsibility to care for our natural world.


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Anna Floyd

Associate Professor, Applied Psychology, Regis University Regis University Mail Code K-15 3333 Regis Blvd. Denver Colorado 80221-1099 Tel: 303-964-6337 Email: afloyd@regis.edu

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