The Spiritual Effects of Nature

My children loved going for walks when they were little. They would point out flowers, watch a caterpillar inch its way across the sidewalk, and sing the ladybug song when one flew by. Sometimes they would jump in puddles or stop, drop, and roll down a grassy hill. They seemed happy to be in nature, even if it was just for a few minutes between other family activities.

Scientists now have evidence that being in nature is indeed good for us. Recent studies in Japan and Finland found that walking through parks and forests lowers heart rates and improves moods. Nature walks also reduce anxiety and self-criticism while improving memory. They even activate an area of the brain (the subgenual prefrontal cortex) that helps to ward off depression.

Psychologist David Strayer has even found that time in nature ‘resets’ the brain. Hiking through green spaces gives the brain a break from the things it usually has to pay attention to, such as school, work, social drama, and household chores. Instead, the brain shifts into a more meditative mode. Negative feelings are replaced by more positive emotions, such as awe and wonder.

Spending time in nature also increases creativity. Environmental studies professor Peter Aspinall discovered that hiking leads to a more open mindset that results in creative problem-solving. However, phone use while walking seems to mitigate this positive effect, perhaps because the brain doesn’t have a chance to fully reset.

Surprisingly, just looking at a natural scene can offer some of these benefits. Seeing a video of wildflowers in a field can lower stress. Glancing out a window to watch a bird gather twigs for a nest can help us relax. Pausing with a child to follow the meandering movements of an insect can reset both our brains for future problem-solving.

Some researchers even found that viewing beautiful nature scenes increases kindness and empathy. They think that the experiences of awe and wonder inspired by gazing at a Redwood tree or a photo of a rainforest gives people a feeling of transcendence, of being part of something amazing that is bigger than themselves. This feeling prompts higher levels of generosity, trust, kindness, and ethical responsibility.

All of this research suggests that spending time in nature is a useful spiritual practice. Even young children experience stress from hectic family schedules. A daily 15-minute walk through a local green space (or a nature video on days a walk isn’t possible) can give their brains and bodies a much needed break.

Elementary age children can learn to take a short (1-2 minute) nature break when schoolwork or personal conflicts begin to feel overwhelming. Give them permission to gaze out the window (if there’s green space outside) or pull out a favorite photo of a natural scene as a calming aid. And help them plan a schedule that permits weekly time outdoors, where they can discover just how awesome nature can be.

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