A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

Benefits of Nature

During the 2013-2014 school year, Mariana Swick taught school programs at Wave Hill as the 2014 Kerlin Intern. Prior to her year at Wave Hill, she graduated from Bank Street College of Education where she completed her MS in Education with dual certification in Museum and Childhood Education, and completed her master’s thesis on the restorative capacities of museums and cultural institutions highlighting Wave Hill as an exemplary site. She has worked in bilingual education as a classroom teacher and curriculum advisor, and as a museum educator at El Museo del Barrio and the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. A Bronx resident, Mariana and her two young boys are frequent visitors to Wave Hill.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.
– John Burroughs

This past year of learning and teaching at Wave Hill has not only deepened my understanding of nature and strengthened my relationship to this very special place, it has afforded me innumerable opportunities to explore human connections to the natural world. While the fall and spring seasons were bustling with activity and outdoor discovery in the company of schoolchildren, the magical still of winter at Wave Hill offered me quiet space for research and reflection.

As an extension of my master’s thesis highlighting the restorative capacities of nature-based cultural institutions for adult survivors of trauma, I was interested in studying the potential overall health benefits of nature for school age children—particularly those with special needs. After reviewing some of the current literature about the physical, mental and social health benefits of nature, I certainly felt affirmed in the work we do at Wave Hill and hopeful for the implications for society at large.

Scientist Edward O. Wilson’s theory of biophilia, the notion that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world, may seem rather intuitive to anyone reading this, but a widening circle of researchers argue that exposure to nature affects our health at an almost cellular level, and studies reveal the “nature” of nature’s benefits . Some of the salient themes in the research include Attention Restoration Theory and nature therapy for ADHD.

“Dances with Leaves: Family Art Project photo courtesy of Joshua Bright

Attention Restoration Theory
The idea that people respond positively to plants, flowers, open skies, grassy landscapes, lush woods, meadows, water, winding trails and elevated views, and that natural landscapes and gardens can be therapeutic is, in fact, an ancient one that has filtered down through the ages. Scholarly evidence has demonstrated that just by viewing nature, many aspects of human health and development can be markedly improved.

Research suggests that natural environments assist in recovery from attention fatigue, in part because they engage the mind effortlessly, providing respite from the task of directed attention. The experience of restoration, defined as “the process of renewing physical, psychological and social capabilities diminished in ongoing efforts to meet adaptive demands” has been positively correlated with natural environments. Researchers have described ‘restorative environments’ as those settings that foster recovery from mental fatigue.

According to these studies, restorative environments require four elements: fascination (an involuntary form of attention requiring effortless engagement of the mind through interest or curiosity); a sense of being away (temporary escape from one’s usual setting or conditions); extent or scope (a sense of being part of a larger whole) and compatibility with an individual’s inclinations (opportunities provided by the setting and whether they satisfy the individual’s purposes). Wave Hill not only exemplifies this definition of a restorative environment, it provides visitors of all ages needed respite as an urban oasis. I invite you to read more about Attention Restoration Theory.

Wave Hill school programs photo courtesy of Wave Hill

Nature therapy for ADHD
Several studies highlight nature’s role in reducing distractibility and attention fatigue–symptoms commonly associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), now the most common neurobehavioral disorder of childhood in the United States. It manifests as abnormally high, chronic levels of inattention and  impulsivity/hyperactivity that could cause significant impairments in the areas of school performance and socialization.

A  nationwide study has compared the aftereffects of ADHD-diagnosed children  while engaged in activities in green settings compared to  being engaged in similar activities  in non-green settings.  Parents overwhelmingly reported that their children’s symptoms (difficulty remaining focused, difficulty completing tasks, difficulty listening and following directions and difficulty resisting distractions) were significantly reduced during and after engagement with activities conducted in relatively natural outdoor environments. Read more about nature as a potential treatment for ADHD.

This growing body of research serves to affirm and inform the important work we do in school programs and at the Family Art Project. But for me, Wave Hill’s young visitors,  with the sheer wonder of the natural world that they demonstrate and the unabashed joy of life they experience, have been the greatest source of encouragement and inspiration.

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