"You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean.
You are not a stranger here." Alan Watts
Have you thrilled to the sensation of wind in your hair, the sun warming your cheeks, or the touch of cold snowflakes on your skin? Have you been stopped in your tracks at the sight of an urban fox turning the corner of your street or felt your heart jump at the scent of a flower you remember from childhood? Have you ever tasted a wild strawberry? Such experiences remind us we’re alive.
Our DNA contains the history of the Earth and of the stars beyond. No matter how sophisticated we become, we'll always be a part of the planet we live on. We don't have to see the evidence because we know it in our bones.
No matter how urban our lifestyle, how domesticated our day-to-day, an encounter with nature can momentarily stop us in our tracks. This is because, says Wilson, biophilia was genetically encoded inside the earliest humans as we struggled to survive in the wild. We needed to to be able to interpret sounds and smells, know what to do when the weather changed, and find food and shelter at desperate moments. An ability to read the behaviours of the creatures and landscapes around us was crucial to our survival. Being attuned to our surroundings could mean the difference between life and death.
Today, of course, our everyday lives are less dependent upon our physical surroundings, but biophilia remains coded into human memory. It can lie dormant for years until it is suddenly triggered by a signal from our bygone past. An encounter with an animal, a visit to the countryside, even just the scent of a flower on a warm day, can plunge us back into an ancient way of being. And it's not always pleasant - snakes and spiders can provoke biophobia and have the opposite effect! But whichever way it goes, in that moment we sense a glimmer of the wild as we once knew it, and we're reconnected with our ancient selves. But biophilia is not just a sentimental pleasure. Nature is good for you.
Environmental psychologists have developed a rich field of scientific evidence to prove what we already know intuitively – that being close to nature not only makes us feel good, it can also measurably improve our health and wellbeing. Contact with nature can restore energy, alleviate mental fatigue, and enhance attention. It slows your pulse, steadies your heart rate, and soothes a mind racing with stress.
A famous hospital study by R.S. Ulrich found that patients who could see trees through the window as they lay in bed recovered faster and better than those whose only view was of a brick wall. A few years later, psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan conducted experiments showing that contact with nature improves health, strength and wellbeing, and even helps you concentrate better. Since then, many other studies in schools, offices, and prisons have found similar results.
So it’s not surprising that in today’s busy and stressed-out world, we still feel drawn to green views and blue horizons. But most of the earlier studies were conducted with adults. Does it work the same for children?
Numerous other studies have returned the same kinds of results, and in recent years the benefits of connecting kids to nature have become increasingly recognised. In 2012, The National Trust published ‘Natural Childhood’, an investigation by naturalist and TV presenter Stephen Moss into the lives of Britain’s children and their lack of engagement with nature. It includes evidence from experts like child psychologist Aric Sigman who, describing what he calls the ‘countryside effect’, reported that children exposed to nature scored higher on concentration and self-discipline; improved their awareness, reasoning and observational skills; did better in reading, writing, maths, science and social studies; were better at working in teams; and showed improved behaviour overall.
Much of the debate around the importance of connecting children to nature was sparked by author Richard Louv, whose 2010 book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ attracted the attention of thousands of parents, teachers, and environmentalists. His latest book, ‘Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life’, is a collection of 500 nature-focused activities for families which makes an ideal companion to the The Kids’ Nature Shop range of products.
As Richard Louv has said,
“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children's health
(and also, by the way, in our own).”
Kaplan, R. and S. Kaplan. The Experience of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. London: Atlantic Books, 2005.
Louv, Richard. Vitamin N. London: Atlantic Books, 2016.
Moss, Stephen. Natural Childhood. National Trust, 2012.
Ulrich, R. S. ‘Aesthetic and affective response to natural environment’. In Behavior and the Natural Environment (Vol. 6), by I. Altman and J. F. Wohlwill (eds), 85–125. NewYork: Plenum, 1983.
Wells, Nancy M. At Home With Nature: Effects of “Greenness” on Children’s Cognitive Functioning. ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR, Vol. 32 No. 6, November 2000 775-795.
Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.