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Foreword from Tony Juniper CBE
Getting closer to Nature is one of the most beneficial things we can do, both for ourselves and for the planet. Visiting a park, wood or river where we can hear birdsong, admire the colours of the plants and breathe in the smells of the flowers and leaves is not only good for our physical health, it does wonders for our mental wellbeing too. Nature might well be accessible from our window, where it still has the power to bring joy and inspiration.
Appreciating the wonderful web of life that is all around us has rewards for the environment too. A closer relationship with the natural world means that people are far more likely to care for it and take steps to protect its future. This has perhaps never been more important than now as we face an emergency of climate and wildlife decline, not to mention very pressing financial challenges. Only by restoring Nature can we provide the right conditions for a healthy planet, healthy people and a sustainable economy.
This guide contains much practical advice about how to enjoy the natural world and I hope it enables many people to have a stronger bond with Nature, for their benefit and the planet’s.
Tony Juniper CBE
Chair of Natural England
The connection between humans and nature has been studied for many decades. As humans, we are a part of, and created by nature, though the detachment of the modern world sometimes makes this easy to forget.
We believe that everyone, from small children to the older generations, should aim to dedicate a percentage of their time each week to being immersed in the nature available to us, wherever we are located.
This guide will teach you how to connect with the natural world around you and why doing so is vital to your health and the health of our planet.
Section 1 – Introduction and Foreword from Tony Juniper CBE
Section 2 – How to connect with nature
Section 3 – Connecting with nature at home
Section 4 – The importance of nature in childhood
Section 5 – The importance of nature in health
Section 6 – Disconnection from nature and climate change
Nature is all around us – wherever you are
Nature is all around us. It could be a garden, a city park, a nearby beach or the wide-open countryside. The clouds in the sky are also part of our natural world.
Even in our cities where nature can be more difficult to locate, there are community gardens or courtyards to explore.
Look out for the unexpected: an urban fox on your way to work, the everchanging seasons or birdsong outside your window. Try to notice nature wherever you are, in a way that is meaningful for you.
Connecting with nature
Observing nature from your window, watching a David Attenborough documentary, or walking around your local park are all ways of connecting with nature. Just being outside in nature, like meeting friends and taking a walk or playing a sport, is not only fun but can support our physical and mental health. These kinds of activities can be the starting point for having a closer connection with nature if you take the time to pause and appreciate the environment around you.
The link between our mental health and nature is well established and recognised by the medical community. Rather than using medication to treat a disease or condition, many health professionals are now using a ‘Green’ or ‘Blue’ Social Prescription to connect their patients with nature. Not only does this improve people’s wellbeing but also reduces the demand on the health and social care system.
As we found during the pandemic, being inside most of the day isn’t always good for our health and wellbeing. As restrictions eased, the People & Nature Survey for England reported how more of us took the time to explore and appreciate the greenspace on our doorstep. More than four out of five people said that being in nature made them happy.
However, some people don’t have greenspaces close to where they live. Where greenspaces do exist, they can sometimes be of poor quality and be particularly unsuitable for older people and those living with mobility issues.
A report by the University of Sheffield also identified a range of social barriers for people from different backgrounds that prevented them from enjoying time in nature. This included concerns over their personal safety, anti-social behaviour and crime as well as a lack of information about what to expect when visiting and a fear of getting lost. Removing these barriers can help to create a sense of community, belonging and attachment with local greenspace, particularly in urban areas.
New community-led organisations are empowering more people to connect with and enjoy nature, sometimes for the first time. Groups such as Muslim Hikers, Black Girls Hike, and SteppersUK are challenging stereotypes and increasing the diversity of people enjoying the UK’s iconic landscapes.
Groups including Disabled Ramblers and the Fieldfare Trust are improving access to people with limited mobility and wheelchair users. Established organisations including The Ramblers are addressing the quality of paths for diverse users as well as introducing new initiatives such as Wellbeing Walks. The Youth Hostel Association’s new strategy Adventure. For the first time and a lifetime aims to reach more people, particularly young people, to access and experience the outdoors for the first time.
For the more adventurous, there are many ways to get out into nature. The British Mountaineering Council, the British Horse Society, British Canoeing, Cycling UK, Sustrans, National Trails UK as well as many others offer advice, events and activities outdoors.
But connecting with nature doesn’t mean travelling far from home. The Big Garden Birdwatch attracts thousands of people each year and helps to provide important information on the populations of different birds. There are many opportunities for ‘citizen scientists’ to build our knowledge of the natural world. For those living by the coast, The Wildlife Trusts run their Shoresearch project, whilst other organisations cover different species including butterflies and swifts. You can even track the migration of birds such as cuckoos or live stream bird tables and other nature online from all over the world.
Building a community for nature
With more than half the world’s population living in cities and that number predicted to grow, many people are actively encouraging nature to coexist. Not only does providing green spaces help nature to thrive, but those places provide local people with important services such as protection from flooding, helping to reduce pollution as well as providing valuable places for people to enjoy and connect with nature.
Anyone with an outdoor space can encourage nature and there are many practical guides online, including Nature on Your Doorstep, as well as on YouTube and TV. Why not take inspiration from one of the hundreds of community gardens, or even start one yourself.
For those looking to bring together their community to create space for wildlife, Nextdoor Nature offers practical advice and support. You could work with people who don’t have access to local nature to make sure it meets their needs.
Build your relationship with nature
So, how are you connecting with nature? You don’t have to be a scientist, an ardent twitcher or even know the names of the plants and animals around you to enjoy and feel part of it. You don’t even have to spend hours in nature to feel its benefits.
Research by the University of Derby suggests five pathways to nature connection. Their Handbook describes how using our senses, actively seeking natural beauty, activating our emotions, building meaning and acting to help nature activates our feelings of being connected. The National Trust’s ‘50 Things To Do’ encourages children to experience nature in different ways and is based on those pathways. This is important as children tend to become disengaged with nature through their teenage years but become more interested in later life.
Both the Handbook and the National Trust Nature and Me booklet provide some helpful tips for connecting yourself, your family, friends and work colleagues to nature.
Almost everyone can join in with the John Muir Award as an individual or as a family by committing your time to discover, explore and conserve nature and share your experience with others. The Open University have many free courses including a large number on nature and the environment.
Use technology to help you navigate
There are some fantastic apps around today that can help you to understand and translate the natural world around you. Take a look on Google Play or the Apple App Store for apps to help you forage for wild nuts, identify trees, or listen to bird song.
Some apps provide you with free maps and walking routes and some allow you to upload your own walk for others to follow. Look for those that provide information on places to visit to search for interesting wildlife, experience fantastic landscapes or hunt for fossils. Geocaching is a game that existed long before apps were developed but has migrated very well to a digital format. This interactive game allows you to navigate across the whole country whilst you search for treasure left by other geocaching participants.
Remember though, if you are out and about to keep safe and to always follow the Countryside Code.
Feed the birds
Whether you make or buy a bird feeder, they’re a wonderful way to get wildlife into your garden.
Hopper feeders tend to be very attractive to the most birds, including finches, jays, sparrows, robins and blackbirds… and they’re also equally attractive to squirrels!
House the birds
Consider a nest box for the garden – they mimic natural hollows and provide a comfortable and safe place for birds to nest, rest and raise their young. The best sort of nest box will be durable, weather resistant, breathable and won’t rot. A deep box will prevent predators from reaching in to grab eggs.
House the insects
Insect populations are in rapid decline due to the rise in temperatures and fragmented habitats. You can create – or buy – a ‘Bug Hotel’ for your garden and create a safe hideaway for wildlife whilst making use of your garden waste.
A well-constructed bug hotel can shelter a variety of wildlife from hedgehogs to toads, bees to bumblebees, and ladybirds to woodlice.
The RSPB have created a fantastic step by step guide to building your own Bug Hotel.
Plant a mini wildflower garden
Planting wildflowers is a wonderful way to encourage bees and butterflies into your garden. You don’t need a large space to do this – pots, window boxes or even an old wheelbarrow would work perfectly.
Gardening and growing food
Gardening can have huge benefits for your wellbeing, it can improve your mood and increase your quality of life.
Planting and growing your own fruits and vegetables has huge environmental benefits too, by significantly reducing food miles, helping you to eat seasonal produce and showing you exactly where your food came from.
Our complete guide to growing your own food will be launching in the new year. In the meantime, you can start a small culinary garden no matter what the size of your outdoor space.
Try planting herbs in a window box or even create an indoor ‘smart garden’.
CloudGardener is a great source of inspiration for those with small balcony spaces.
Buy some indoor plants
Not only do they look fantastic, but they also help to increase the air quality in your home.
Create nutritious compost from food waste
Check out our Beginners Guide to Composting.
Eat outside when the weather allows
Who doesn’t enjoy alfresco dining in the warmer months?
Relax in a hammock
If you’re lucky enough to have two sturdy trees in your garden, you can attach a hammock. Otherwise, they’re available to buy on a frame.
According to a 2018 study, UK children spend around 13 hours in front of the TV, 11 hours of gaming, 14.4 hours on a mobile phone, and 15.3 hours on the internet.
Children between the ages of 3-7, spend most of their media time in front of the television and as children grow up, their media time is more focussed on their phones and the internet.
Too much screen time has been linked to obesity, irregular sleep, behavioural problems, stifled academic results and even violence. Staring at screens can also cause strain on the eyes, negatively affect the ability to socialise and weaken emotional judgement.
The term “nature-deficit disorder” has been coined to describe a generation of children alienated from nature and deprived of time outside to explore. A British study showed that children typically know more about Pokémon characters than the types of trees growing in their local area.
With all that in mind, it’s important we find ways to engage children in the ‘real world’ away from the allure of digital dopamine hits. Getting them out into nature is the perfect way to do this.
Research suggests that kids who play and spend time outside are happier, they are better at paying attention and are less anxious than children who spend more time indoors.
Spending time in nature builds a child’s confidence, as the way they play has less structure than most types of indoor play.
There are endless ways to play outside, from the backyard to the park to hiking to paddling, and letting your child choose how they interact with nature means they can let their imaginations run free.
Being in nature promotes creativity and imagination. Unstructured play also allows children meaningful interaction with their surroundings.
Regular contact with nature teaches responsibility. Plants and animals will die if they’re mistreated and allowing a child to take care of living parts of their environment allows them to learn the consequences of forgetting to water a plant or pulling a flower out by its roots.
Nature provides complete stimulation. Playing in the forest may seem less stimulating than a violent video game, but the reality is that nature activates more senses: you can see, hear, smell, and touch your surroundings, enriching the human experience.
Nature provides holistic exercise. A walk in the park or a game of hide and seek in the woods will get children’s cardiovascular system working and increase their overall concentration, which is especially good for children with ADHD.
Time in open spaces stimulates thinking in a way that a screen or even a classroom cannot. Nature creates a unique sense of wonder for children that no other environment can provide.
A long walk with them will open conversations which wouldn’t occur in other settings and connecting with the natural world causes children to ask questions about the earth and the life that it supports.
Outdoor time reduces stress and fatigue. City and urban environments require ‘directed attention’, which requires us to ignore distractions and exhausts our brains. In natural environments, our attention is much more effortless and is known as ‘soft fascination’ which creates feelings of pleasure, not fatigue.
“Come to the woods for here is rest.”
Looking after our mental health and wellbeing is important for everyone, and there are things we can all do to help support good mental health, including connecting to nature.
From woods and streams to parks and gardens – even house plants, we can find nature wherever we are.
As well as being an enjoyable way to spend time, interacting with nature is also proven to benefit our mental health and wellbeing.
“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement, the greatest source of visual beauty, the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”
How do I look after my mental health?
Our physical health and mental health are fundamentally linked, but many of us have our physical health as a priority without considering the importance of our mental health and wellbeing. There are things that we can all do each day that can help us to boost good mental health, including connecting to nature. Evidence suggests that being out in nature for more than 150 minutes a week has a direct correlation with the best possible physical and mental health.
Nature can refer to many aspects, including plants, animals, the landscape itself. It can also be the nature we have available in city spaces such as parks, gardens and allotments, farmland, natural forests and wild nature.
In today’s world, so many of us live a noisy, non-stop life with long days in sedentary jobs followed by stressful commutes in polluted air, all of which pile on range of pressures that effect our mental health.
Therefore it is important for us to spend some time in natural surroundings to bring some peace, even when life is busy and other aspects of life take priority.
The reasons why time in nature has such a positive effect on the health of our bodies and minds are still being understood and research is happening all the time that add to our understanding, but we know that ‘nature connectedness’ speaks to us on multiple levels.
The benefits are often related to how our senses connect us to the environment around us, from the soft shapes we see, to the natural smells that plants emit and soothing noises of the wind blowing through the trees or a river flowing. Contact with nature should involve much more than just experiencing it visually; it should be immersive and involve all of our senses.
How does being in nature effect my physical health?
Spending more time in green spaces has been linked to reduced levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), lower cholesterol, a lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, reduced risk of coronary heart disease, a reduced risk of type II diabetes, reduced all-cause mortality and death from heart disease.
Some studies have suggested a potential link between green spaces and the health of cancer patients, sleep duration, and certain biomarkers while other studies have shown the dramatically reduced post-operative recovery time of people who could see greenery out their hospital window compared to those who could only see a wall.
Some of these health benefits are very easily connected to the physical activity, social interaction, vitamin D from the sunlight, and reduced pollution levels, which come hand in hand with being outdoors in green spaces.
The less obvious explanations for these benefits are the increased exposure to microorganisms, which can bolster the immune system and subsequently lead to a reduced risk of chronic disease and early death.
There’s also another benefit to be thrown into the mix – the chemicals created by the trees themselves, which may affect our immune systems in various ways, which has led to an increasingly popular activity… forest bathing.
What is forest bathing?
‘Forest bathing’ also known as ‘shinrin yoku’, may sound like new age woo woo, but this increasingly popular activity has proven health benefits and is finding itself the subject of an increasing amount of scientific interest.
Studies have found that people who spend time in woodland areas have a significantly reduced risk of a range of chronic illnesses which has been linked to the phytoncides produced by trees and other plants. These chemicals contain antibacterial properties and help the plant life to fight diseases. Scientists believe that when we inhale these phytochemicals, they help boost our immune systems.
It seems that people have been aware of the connection between greenery and health since the 19th century, which may be part of why city parks and green spaces were developed so thoroughly in that period.
Modern urban life involves our reliance on many complex systems. Meat and vegetables are packaged in plastic and sold to us in brightly lit supermarkets. We live and work in buildings that are heated in the winter and cooled in the summer months. The manufacturing and production of our vital resources are so far removed from the aspects of nature they’re derived from, that we are unaware of the processes involved in creating our ‘comforts’ and live in blissful ignorance about the impact of our lives and behaviours, on the natural world.
Without a connection to nature, we can lose interest in protecting it and fail to see how connected it is to us, as though we are separate from the planet.
As our planet warms, the people and the wildlife we love will be profoundly affected. More extreme weather events will cause fatal heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and flooding.
One in ten UK species is already at risk of extinction and over half of our wildlife is in decline. If we do not act to limit the climate emergency, some of the wildlife we see today will be lost forever.
Taking some time to be grateful for the beautiful world around us will help us to appreciate what we have and try our best to save it, before it’s too late.
“We have a finite environment — the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.”
Thank you to
for their contribution to this guide to reconnecting with nature.