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Relax and restore in nature
Being in nature helps us to relax. In nature our calming system (parasympathetic nerve system) is automatically activated, which performs all kinds of important repair work on our body and brain. That is one of the reasons why being in nature is so powerfully effective for our wellbeing. Nature connection supports growth in all six wellbeing domains of positive mental health: environmental, spiritual, social, emotional, physical and intellectual, with nature in the outer circle. In this article we explore why and how connecting with nature stimulates youth wellbeing and what youth workers can do to stimulate activities in nature.

Key messages: 

  • Calm your body, free your mind, connect with your wild heart in nature
  • In nature we feel less alone, we connect with something bigger
  • Playful exercises in nature stimulates flow learning and positive mental health

Which nutrients in nature promote our immune system?

    • exposure to phytoncides, an ethereal substance secreted by trees and plants that slows breathing and reduces anxiety;
    • exposure to mycobacterium vaccae – a bacterium that naturally lives in the soil and stimulates the happiness hormone seretonine;
    • increased adiponectin – a substance that reduces appetite;
    • negative ions in the air have an invigorating effect;
    • the super vitamin D our body absorbs from sunlight, which helps to reduce feelings of depression [1]

The connection between brain, body and environment
At the University of Essex, eco-psychologists developed the Green Mind Theory to explain why nature is so restorative [2]. For the past fifteen years, they have investigated the effect of green activities on our health. The Green Mind Theory makes a connection between our brain, our body and the environment. The basis for good health and a calm mind is sufficient sleep, a healthy diet and sports/exercise. The mind is linked to our brain and body. Our body is connected to natural and social environments. How our body reacts to those environments affects our health, according to the Green Mind Theory.

Why is this interesting? Using a simple metaphor, the researchers demonstrate the influence our brain has on our wellbeing. They simply divide the brain into the red and the blue brains.

The red brain
Our brain has a lower brainstem that is fast-acting, involuntary and impulsive. It is also the driver of our fight-or-flight behaviour. The lower brain reacts before we think and controls the sympathetic nervous system in our body. We need the red brain because, at the core, it is very healthy. It is important for our self-protection; it is our survival mode. We get a lot of things done, we are motivated to buy good food, fall in love, connect with friends, get status and recognition. It motivates us to pursue and maintain goals, such as years of school, perform at sports or struggle because we want to win.
However, too much red brain is not good for our health. In modern highly consumerist societies, we often live in red alert. In our survival modus, we tend to see only threats and are disconnected from the creative part of the brain. We suffer from social comparison, which isn’t good for our self-esteem. This overactive red mode also negatively affects our immune system: we get tired, get sick faster, sleep badly, become overweight and look for alcohol, gaming or drugs to make up for the feeling of being rushed. Or we become addicted to the feeling that excitement (Facebook likes, online gaming), status and recognition give and keep on going. We forget to turn on the blue brain.

The blue brain
The upper cerebral cortex is slower, voluntary. It is the centre for learning and is the driver of rest and digestion. The upper brain calms and controls the parasympathetic nervous system (our calming or sedation system), which performs all kinds of important repair work on our body. However, it only gets space if nothing else is needed: if the danger has passed, if the hunger has been satisfied. In the blue brain, the attention is open, nothing is crucial and there is room for new possibilities, creativity and connection with the people around us. However, it does not usually switch on by itself, – we have to do something to change modes.

Green Mind – optimal mix between red and blue
According to research, nature-based activities stimulate the blue brain. Activities that we do with our full attention, in which we are fully immersed, soothe our internal buzz. Such a state of mind is also called flow. In nature, a lot of unnecessary stimuli disappear (bleeps from your phone, emails, conversations with others), which makes it easier for us to get into a flow. In nature our sedation system is activated – we get a broader, softer, soft focus, which nourishes our exhausted sources of attention. This gives our creativity a boost and makes the red brain more manageable. I will explain later on how youth workers can stimulate flow learning in nature.
Relation with the framework for promoting positive mental health and well-being in the European Youth Sector
Six domains of well-being are mentioned in the framework: environmental, spiritual, social, emotional, physical and intellectual. At the heart of these domains are mentioned: values, mindsets and identity around three questions:

  • How I feel?
  • How I think?
  • How I relate to others?

Nature connection supports growth in all six domains. Interventions in nature support well- being by:

  • Creating a safe learning environment by switching on our blue brain;
  • Experiencing a more relaxed and positive mindset, as our survival mode can easily switch off in nature – we feel safe, secure, soothed;
  • Having a positive sense of identity, which includes knowing and feeling good about ourselves, feeling that we have a purpose and having confidence in the ability to learn and grow as well as experiencing that nature does not judge us, that we are 100% ok just the way we are, that we don’t need to change;
  • In nature, everything has its own rhythm, the rhythm of the seasons. Nature brings people in contact with their deepest desires and their own natural resources, which they can draw on to live in balance;
  • Developing a healthy lifestyle: exercise on a daily basis, eat healthy food, sleep well, recover from stress, find the rhythm to regulate emotions;
  • Connecting with the environment, and feel that we are part of something bigger (spiritual dimension);
  • Discovering what is really important for us, what our values are, what makes us move and step into action. When we know what our values are, we can keep on taking footsteps on our life path with a purpose in mind – we no longer wander around, feeling lost and not knowing where to go. We feel what is important for us, what change we want to bring in the world, our reason for getting out of bed in the morning.
Evolutionary perspective
The problem is that most (young) people spend much of the day in artificially lit rooms, with air conditioning, so they hardly notice the rhythm of the day and night, changes in temperature or changing seasons.

However, according to the classic biophilia hypothesis of social biologist Edward Wilson everyone has an innate desire to connect with nature [4]. We have a kind of biologically set nature to respond positively to nature because we have evolved in nature. Our ancestors’ well-being and survival depended on their connection to nature, i.e., finding food and water, navigating, and predicting time or future weather conditions. Nature has been good to us and we tend to respond positively to environments that are beneficial to us.

Connecting the body and our wild mind with nature
The free, wild part of our identity is the deep, emotive, playful and instinctual dimension of our self. We experience that wild side when we feel immersed in the landscape around us – in the rivers, mountains, deserts, plains and forests. Our wild side enjoys a visceral and deep-rooted kinship with all other creatures and with the diverse ecosystems we inhabit. Psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin wrote the beautiful book Wild Mind to explore the different sides of who we are in nature. [5]

You may recognize that wild side from when you were a child. How you went on an adventure with your family or friends in nature. Maybe you were a scout and learned survival techniques in nature. Or you went on holiday without a plan and saw where the path was leading you. What is it like now? When do you make room for this wild and free side? This is the cheerful, spirited, funny person you carry hidden within you. The one that is not concerned by the judgment of others and has no self-judgment and is, above all, present. Being, enjoying, in the here and now, with all senses open.

Bring nature in the daily routine
What do you do as a youth worker when your youngsters are tired, stressed and tend to think negatively about themselves? The first step is to bring youngsters in contact with nature. In the review ‘Flourishing in Nature’, the authors examine the concepts of nature contact and nature connection [6]. They found that individuals who are more connected to nature spend more time outdoors, and nature contact often increases momentary feelings of connectedness.

So do put on your coats and go out into nature! Just five minutes of exercise in a park, forest, or other green space immediately improves our mood and self-esteem (Barton & Pretty, 2010). In a meta-analysis, a study of ten English studies about the effect of exercise in a natural environment on mood and mental health, researchers analysed various activities: cycling, walking, gardening, fishing, boating, horseback riding and vegetable garden work.

Their main findings:

  • The researchers saw the biggest change in mood and confidence after five minutes of movement in green nature.
  • The greatest positive changes in health were found in young people and people with a mental illness.
  • All natural environments boost wellbeing, but green areas with water add something extra.
  • Whether you exercise intensely or gently, self-esteem and mood increase at all levels.

Sports and exercise scientist Jo Barton of the University of Essex advocates adding more green exercises to healthcare. ‘We know from the literature that positive short-term effects have a protective effect on long-term results’ [7].

Inspiring activities in nature
Joseph Cornell is one of the world’s most famous nature educators. In his book Sharing Nature, you can find inspiration for playful activities to do with youngsters in nature. Sharing Nature is based on a flow learning method that contains four stages:

  • Stage 1. Awaken enthusiasm. Without enthusiasm people learn very little. We need this intense flow of personal interest and alertness.
  • Stage 2. Focus Attention. Attention activities help youngsters become attentive and receptive to nature.
  • Stage 3. Offer Direct Experience. By bringing us face to face with a bird, a wooded hill, or any natural subject, Offer Direct Experience activities give us intuitive experiences of nature.
  • Stage 4. Share Inspiration. Reflecting and sharing with others strengthens and clarifies the experience. Sharing brings to the surface unspoken but often-universal feelings that, once communicated, allow people to feel a closer bond with the topic and with one another. [8]
Connect with your wild heart, free mind and calm body
In this article we explored why being in and connecting with nature stimulates youth wellbeing. The Green Mind Theory helps us to understand the connection between our red and blue brains, our body and our environment. The way our body reacts to our environment affects our mental and physical health. Nature is an important facilitator for a positive mindset because our survival system (the red brain) can easily switch off and allowing us turn on the blue brain as we feel safe, seen, secure and soothed.
When we try to understand the importance of connecting with nature from an evolutionary perspective, we see that on a spiritual level we respond positively to nature because we have evolved in nature. Nature is our safe space, a place where we can learn and experiment in a playful, safe way without judging ourselves or others. Because in nature nothing judges you. The flow learning method of Joseph Cornell offers a useful framework and a lot of exercises for youth workers to work and play! with young people in nature.

So let us provide young people with intense nature experiences in order for them to turn on their blue brain and get in contact with their creativity and positive mood. Activities where we are immersed, without judging, in the here-and-now make us feel intensely alert and alive.

Walk through the forest and experience how wonderful it is to explore the environment with your wild heart, free mind and calm body.

This article is published in: 
Albers, T. & Salomons, O., (Eds.) (2021). Building Blocks for Promoting Positive Mental Health in Youth Work. Sharing Emerging Perspectives from the Field. Aalten: Anatta Foundation.

[1]  Kuo, Ming (2015). How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in Psychology; 6.

[2]  Pretty, Jules, Mike Rogerson and Jo Barton (2017). Green Mind Theory: How brain- body-behaviour links into natural and social environments for healthy habits, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2017, 14(7), 706.

[3]  //self-reg.ca/2019/02/19/reframing-challenging-behaviour-part-1-blue-brain- red-brain-and-brown-brain/

[4]  Kellert, S.R. & Wilson, E.O. (1993). The biophilia hypothesis. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

[5]  Plotkin, B. (2013). Wild Mind, a field fuide to the human psyche, New World Library.

[6]  Capaldi, C. A., et al. (2015). Flourishing in nature: A review of the benefits of connecting with nature and its application as a wellbeing intervention. International Journal of

Wellbeing, 5(4), 1-16. doi:10.5502/ijw.v5i4.1

[7]  Barton, J., Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for

improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental Science & Technology,

2010: 100325142930094

[8]  Cornell, J. (2013). Sharing Nature with Children, Crystal Clarity.

Further reading

  • Barton, J. Bragg, R., Wood, C., & Pretty, J. Eds., (2016). Green exercise – linking nature, health and well-being, New York: Routledge.