mei-lyn’s journey: what nature gives back to us

The forest behind the school has been our refuge for exploration, discovery, and adventure.

I have always been intuitively drawn to nature and the outdoors. What is amazing is how scientific research now shows evidence for nature’s ability to improve the cognitive functioning of our brain. Our brain’s neuroplasticity is affected by its environment, and spending time in nature actually changes the brain in profound ways.  It makes us healthier, happier, and smarter. Stress hormones, heart rate, brain waves, and protein markers show evidence of this impact… allow me to elaborate.

What you see, hear, smell, feel, and experience at any moment changes your mood, and how your nervous, endocrine and immune systems interact. While the stress of an unpleasant environment causes you to feel anxious, sad, helpless, it also elevates blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension and suppresses your immune system. After minutes in a crowded, noisy city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, suffering from reduced ability to self-control.

Natural environments reverse this effect and enhance our overall well-being.

Nature helps us cope with pain, stress, hurt, allowing our bodies to heal faster. Evidence shows that hospital patients’ recovery rates exponentially increase when they can see trees from their windows.

Nature is restorative.  Nature is a neurological process that calms our brain and the prefrontal cortex. Psychologists call it Attention Restoration Theory, or ART, the theory that nature gives back what man-made environments take away from us. Urban environments force us to direct our attention to specific tasks which are absent in natural environments. Nature is not a panacea, but an inexpensive and effective tool for dampening the impact of illness and dulling the intrusion of everyday stress. This effect can be as fast as 60 seconds. Nature provides a respite for our overactive minds, refreshing us for new tasks and increasing our ability to pay attention, feel more energetic and creative. Functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) measurements show the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love light up after being in nature, evidence of an increased sense of connection, community, belonging, trust and coping skills.

In the forest we breathe in phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumors – and virus-infected cells – in our bodies. In one study, increased NK activity from a 3-day, 2-night forest bathing trip lasted for more than 30 days. Japanese researchers are currently exploring whether exposure to forests can help prevent certain kinds of cancer.

Two areas of the brain, the cingulate cortex and amygdala, involved in regulation of emotions and anxiety are deeply affected by the environment. In the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, the limbic stress regulation system expresses high cortisol which modulates hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activation during stress, leading to chronic social stress.

Nature is the antidote.

Simply being in nature can have a healing effect by reducing cortisol levels and washing our brains with increased oxytocin. EEG (electroencephalogram) readings indicate lower frustration, engagement, and arousal. This level of brain activity is strongly linked to creative thinking. Nature provides the comfort our brains need, resetting our thoughts and producing a peaceful mindset. Where we live can therefore powerfully alter how we think… and how our children think.

Before our forest shrinks amidst the growing concrete jungle, let’s take full advantage as we trek on a path to becoming healthier, happier, and smarter with our students.

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12 thoughts on “mei-lyn’s journey: what nature gives back to us

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  1. Thank you for this, Mei-Lyn! It’s cool to hear your background and expertise in microbiology coming through in this post. We’re so lucky to have you as our PYP Coordinator at GSIS. I’m excited to go on the outdoor excursion with you on our PL day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Liz, you continue to encourage and inspire me. Thank you. Writing this post was a lot of fun as I tapped into my “microbiological” brain. I’m excited for what tomorrow will bring as we, as a community, step outside and allow nature to enter in…

      Like

  2. I love your post Mei! Thankful for the science connections and its applications. I’m thinking of doing something related to this with my biology class soon 🙂 Your skill of storytelling shines!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Olivia, thank you for your post. Please share the ideas you have with your biology class! I’d love for you to share the impact of nature you notice both outdoors and indoors with your students and your teaching. We all have stories worth sharing!

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  3. Mei-Lyn,

    What a beautiful post about our innate need to connect to nature. Today actually, I was having a conversation with some colleagues about our inner self-preservation and survival tendencies, both physical and mental, and how nature is the only environment in which we are challenged to thrive in both. Your post resonated with me in that providing opportunities for our learners to explore nature and learn through it, is also an opportunity to explore themselves and learn about who they are in connection to our Earth.

    I’d love to hear more about your expeditions with your students. How often do you go outdoors? Are there different goals for each journey? If so, what are they? And most importantly; how have you seen this connection to nature have an impact in their learning indoors?

    Excited to learn more! Thank you for sharing!
    Ceci

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ceci, thank you for your post and questions.

      As the current PYP Coordinator, my regular time outdoors with students has declined. However, each quarter this year, at the request of my previous students, we have spent 30 minutes in our outdoor forest. When we were a grade 5 class we would, at a minimum, go into the forest once a week for an “expedition”. Our main goals were self-regulation, creativity, connections and fun. There were times that we connected with learning; like when we were looking for mathematical patterns or being scientists observing nature and drawing about “How The World Works”. Reflections on the impact of nature were done for students to discover the effects of nature on their overall emotional health.

      The visible changes I witnessed in students energy, imagination and play by simply stepping into the forest was magical. Students also became more confident in their movements and interactions with themselves and others. The transfer back indoors was with their increased ability to self-regulate, speak with confidence, and innovate in various subject areas. Students’ senses were awakened to nature’s effects with more focused learning, memory retention, and increased collaboration and interactions with each other. Students were more open to sharing their emotions because of their shared experiences and new connections that were made as a classroom community.

      I can really find no reason not to go outside, the benefits are endless. Ceci, please share your experiences and ideas. Let’s play together!

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  4. We might consider following the “prep. to harvest” cycle of the Rice Fields… and let students see that rice does NOT come from “HomePlus”….

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Without knowing the scientific intricacies that Mei-Lyn has introduced to us, I have always loved the outdoors both as a form of relaxation and recharge. Mei-Lyn, I loved the part of your post which talks about urban environments and its effect on us. What an insight. Thank you for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for a great post and for teaching me the importance of being in nature. I should share this post with my students’ parents to help them understand how important it is for us to give our children a daily opportunity to rest their brain through nature. It makes me sad that the bad air quality prevents us from taking kids and ourselves out.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I loved the walk yesterday – heightened everything you were drawing attention to in the blog post. While I think we need more of this activity out of doors, we are limited at times by weather, air quality, time constraints, etc. I’d love to know what we could do to make the indoors of our school more “natural”. I wonder if there are ways to simulate/recreate the natural effect outside of nature. Hmmm … more to consider and explore. Thanks Mei!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Mei, I loved being outdoors for our PD on Monday. Being outside is like opening a cage and letting our souls go free. Every morning I find strength and connections with God as I run along those trails and try to find new trails all over Suwon. Your post consider so many benefits for our senses, emotions, physical health and overall well-being. I love that we can BACK up what we are doing with our students with such solid research. Thank you for providing all of this rich information. I know for myself, being outside my whole life has been where I find the most joy and pleasure. As I child, I was always finding trees to climb, nests to spot, birds to hear, flowers of all kinds, and rocks to scamper over and that was our playground….we didn’t have the fancy playgrounds you see now at schools or in parks, we just made playgrounds out of natural places around us. I think our students could be awakened to these experiences if we took the time to let them play and explore outside. My goal…as of yesterday…DO MORE OUTSIDE!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow!! I learned so much about the science and research that explains WHY nature is so important for learners of all ages. This is fascinating and I’m intrigued by Attention Restoration Theory and want to find more ways for not only my students, but for myself to reconnect with nature and take those much needed cognitive breaks. It is so true…where we live DOES impact how we think. I want to learn more! Please keep sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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