Nature therapy at work
Theresa McGuire connected children with the natural environment as part of a holistic wellness program at a residential camp
The growing disconnect between people and nature and its impact on health has a name: nature-deficit disorder. I believe that a strong connection to nature is essential for optimal human health. Almost 70 per cent of Canadians now live in medium or large population centres, where access to natural elements may be lacking. New studies suggest that regular and direct exposure to the natural environment can reduce the symptoms of ADHD, improve relaxation and cognitive abilities, and increase resistance to negative stressors and depression.
To fulfil the requirements for a master of resource and environmental management program at Dalhousie University, I did a three-month internship at an outdoor residential camp for nine- to 12-year-olds in Tatamagouche, N.S. During this time, I was the camp’s RN and wellness coordinator, and I implemented a wellness program with a new holistic approach. The camp program was highly structured, but I was given some leeway to combine standard nursing care with environmental education and nature therapy.
The internship was also an opportunity to apply the research I have conducted on biophilia — our love for the natural world. I was given permission to observe the responses of the campers to this holistic approach to care but was not allowed to collect any data. The camp manager, nursing student assistant, counsellors and program facilitators were supportive of my observational study.
Each of the seven camp sessions ran for 10 days, with about 128 children per session. I noticed in reviewing the campers’ medical files that children from larger urban centres were much more likely than those from rural areas to have been prescribed medications for anxiety and ADHD.
Most of the campers engaged happily in the outdoor activities on the ocean waterfront and in open fields and forests — their first opportunities to try kayaking, boating, ocean swimming, trail biking and camping. Some experienced their first sunset over the water. I heard surprisingly few complaints about the lack of electronics or TV, even though I was told these were the main activities at home. In my daily interactions with the campers, I encouraged them to turn on their full senses, to be aware of looking at, listening to and touching the natural environment all around them.
I helped anxious children relax by teaching them to close their eyes, recognize the sounds of water and wind in trees, and take deep breaths of fresh air for its therapeutic effects. I encouraged those who were nervous about being close to water to simply sit quietly with me on the beach and play with the sand and rocks, to dip their bare feet in the ocean — and even taste the salt water — and to watch the waves.
I showed the children how to fill the bird and squirrel feeders and water dish in front of my clinic. They showed compassion and caring and wanted to learn more about the behaviours of birds and wildlife. Large moths, funky spiders, grasshoppers and beetles were closely but gently examined.
I wanted to make the children aware of the connection between food and its origins, so I got them involved in helping me plant and tend a vegetable garden in an abandoned boat located by the camp flagpole. They were excited when it came time to harvest cherry tomatoes or look for strawberries to pick. These activities led to many chats and much interest in the role of the natural environment on other dimensions of human health, including the need for clean water, nutritious food, rest, light and fresh air to grow and be healthy. I found that many of the children with ADHD were able to focus surprisingly well, remaining calm and cooperative while counting and planting tiny seeds. Their fine motor skills and attention were impressive, whether they were gardening in the ground, in pots or in recycled containers.
For most of the city-dwelling children, the experience of a campfire and overhead stars as the only light was a great novelty. When it was noisy inside the dining hall, I brought children who showed signs of distress outside on the patio overlooking the water; they relaxed immediately. Some campers initially had headaches, stomach aches and homesickness, as might be expected at a residential camp. But they often had a quick reduction of symptoms as we walked slowly along the quiet wooded path to the clinic, observing the trees, water and wildlife along the way.
I was pleased to be able to use these methods of relaxation, rather than additional medication, when children exhibited signs of panic and anxiety, hyperventilation, headache and gastric distress. In fact, every child who, at any point, seemed to be in some form of emotional or physical distress responded very favourably to direct and guided exposure to the natural outdoor environment. Counsellors commented on the magical effects of nature therapy.
According to recent studies, the decrease in children’s exposure to nature over the last generation is due to “stranger danger,” busier lifestyles and overscheduling of activities, and a rapid increase in technology and screen time. Regular exposure to green space, foliage, blue space (still or flowing water), even if glimpsed through a window, is important for optimum human health. Numerous research studies have focused on brief encounters with nature, such as a 20-minute walk through an urban park, which are considered sufficient to decrease anxiety, lower blood pressure and improve cognitive function.
This positive internship experience triggered my interest in conducting my own research on how regular access to parks, urban green spaces and gardens might improve mental and physical health for children and adults. It is somewhat ironic to think of nature therapy as an emerging concept. Florence Nightingale observed that sick hospital patients tried to turn their faces and bodies toward the sun as a way to feel better and heal. That convinced her to encourage them in this as well.