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Sourcing Natural Wellbeing in Time of Crisis

By Alice Goodenough & Sue Waite, authors of Wellbeing from Woodland

The current COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the connection many people feel with green spaces and their desire to use them as a way of maintaining physical and mental health.  Flocking to take advantage of ‘natural health services’ through spending time in greenspace such as parks, beaches and mountains in the early stages of the UK’s outbreak demonstrated this, with policing to safeguard social distancing during lockdown introduced to curb this natural impulse. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that our affinity with green, natural spaces are evolved responses reflecting the successful strategies our ancestors used to monitor and respond to danger and recover from their decisions to fight or fly.  Green spaces have the capacity to restore us from anxiety, refreshing our attention and calming our physiological stress responses.  In this sense it is perhaps perfectly logical and understandable that people have actively sought time in green landscapes during this unprecedented period.

However, people’s efforts to access natural wellbeing have also drawn attention to the socio-spatial inequalities that limit our ability to feel good via green, underscoring that children, those living in cities and people on low incomes have least independent access to green space.  While people are permitted to spend time outside in their own garden or for daily physical exercise, those with no private green space or mobility issues, for example, may struggle to benefit from natural sources of wellbeing. 

Social science research can help us understand how and why green space supports our emotional, social, psychological, physical wellbeing and our connection to nature.  For example, research explored in our book, Wellbeing from Woodland, showed that time spent with/in nature was significant for children from an area characterised by high levels of socioeconomic deprivation. Individual, imaginative, playful relations with trees and woodland allowed children respite from stressful emotions and feelings.  Children chose to spend some time apart from other humans with specific features of nature (hidey holes formed by overhanging foliage, branches that supported their weight) in order to feel good. Companionship with nature can be especially important when social ties are either fragmented or under strain, a situation that is likely to occur increasingly during lockdown.

The solace that they found in nature can help us comprehend how serious the loss of outside time in greenspace could be for some young people, and how defending and ensuring their access to nature during this crisis may help protect their mental as well as physical health.  Measures such as closing roads and allowing children to access local communal green space at particular times of day could help them access the nature they need during the lockdown – and whilst they wouldn’t be able to benefit from shared play with their peers, they would be accompanied by nature. The permitted daily exercise might also be enriched by making sure that attention is drawn to natural features during the walk in urban or rural environments. Growing and looking after a plant on a windowsill could help bring nature into their lives and their care for it nurtures not only the plant but also their own wellbeing. Our research found that planting trees, for example, positively impacted young people’s sense of wellbeing years later. Harnessing the restorative power of nature will also be important when restrictions are lifted. In Denmark, for example, increased levels of outdoor learning are advocated as schools re-open.

It is not just children but also adults that need connection to nature to support wellbeing and they too can benefit from being more mindful during their daily exercise and noticing how the natural world is changing as we move through seasons. Even virtual green space (e.g. watching nature programmes on TV) and views of nature from windows are beneficial for maintaining wellbeing and for recovery from illness.

Looking to the future, COVID-19 provides us with an opportunity to recognise and acknowledge the central place that the natural world has in supporting our health and wellbeing - that we are indeed part of nature. It should also push us to reflect on the uneven impact of lockdown on this source of natural wellbeing and ensure that access to this service is equitable and sustainable in the future. Social science has a key role in helping us understand the complexity of how natural health services can be supported, delivered and accessed and identifying what needs to be protected and expanded by highlighting natural connections and routes to health and wellbeing.

Alice Goodenough was Project Researcher for the Good from Woods project, and has worked with a wide range of organisations to research impacts and outcomes of aspects of their work in natural environments.

Sue Waite holds honorary positions at the University of Plymouth, UK and Jonköping University in Sweden. Passionate about the benefits of spending time in nature, she has published widely in this field and conducted research projects about health and wellbeing in natural environments.