For developing brains and global health, it’s all about the trees

Nature

Trees are important for childhood development (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

As I head off on my latest grand adventure (a road-trip across Washington State), I will be driving through some fairly pristine landscapes; prairies, desert, forests, river basins. I love experiencing natural environments, even if it’s only from my car window. I find it rejuvenating and relaxing, more than a 90-minute massage! And enough research is coming out these days that finds I am not alone in my need for green spaces. So these two articles that were recently published seemed very timely for me. I know a lot of people wonder, “what does saving trees have anything to do with play?” Well, in a word, LOTS!

A new blog post by No Child Left Inside writer Richard Louv states:

From conception through early childhood, brain architecture is particularly malleable and influenced by environment and relationships with primary caregivers, including toxic stress caused by abuse or chronic neglect. By interfering with healthy brain development, such stress can undermine the cognitive skills and health of a child, leading to learning difficulty and behavior problems, as well as psychological and behavior problems, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments later in life.

A growing body of primarily correlative evidence suggests that, even in the densest urban neighborhoods, negative stress, obesity and other health problems are reduced and psychological and physical health improved when children and adults experience more nature in their everyday lives. These studies suggest that nearby nature can also stimulate learning abilities and reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and we know that therapies using gardening or animal companions do improve psychological health. We also know that parks with the richest biodiversity appear to have a positive impact on psychological well-being and social bonding among humans.

While we can’t say with certainty that these influences play a direct role in early brain development, it’s fair to suggest that the presence of nature can soften the blow of toxic stress in early childhood and throughout our lives. It’s understandable that researchers have yet to explore the natural world’s impact on brain development because the topic itself is rather new. Also, scientists have a hard time coming up with an agreed-upon definition of nature – or of life itself.

He’s right that we can directly link the two, but we do have research that demonstrates all of the following:

  • play is good for you
  • stress is bad for you
  • less stress = more play
  • more nature = less stress
  • more nature = more play
  • The environment you grow up in as a kid leads to permanent learned behaviors as an adult.

So there is a STROOOONG correlation to more exposure to nature as a kid leading to a less stressed, healthier, more playful brain.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there are now calls out to step up preserving natural forests, with some researchers claiming deforestation poses more of a threat to the planet’s health than global warming:

Bill Laurance, a professor at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, studied 60 protected areas in tropical regions around the world and is the lead author of an article that will be published in tomorrow’s issue of Nature.

Tropical forests are the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, and failing to maintain them may drive more species to extinction, he said. To serve as a sanctuary for wildlife, the areas must also be protected from nearby development and other activities in adjacent lands that will have impact on designated preserves.

Protecting nature is important for our own health, as well as our children and grandchildren. Remember to be thankful for nature this weekend, and maybe even give a tree a hug; it’s playful and gets you closer to nature, literally.

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