Going Beyond the Gut Instinct of Knowing the Benefits of Outdoor Activity

2018 ACA Conference Keynote Address

Keynote Franz Plangger, Outdoor Council of Canada, Curriculum Specialist

Camper on Mountain

Your gut has been telling you for a long time that going outdoors is great. But, is your gut enough when you have doubts, ask a parent to trust you, defend the value of your program? What is it about being outside that is great and is this enough to justify all the effort we invest in running outdoor programs?

Outdoor programs can bring many benefits to our society and this realization is becoming more evident. However, fewer and fewer people have had the chance to be part of outdoor programs or spend some unstructured time outside. It is up to program managers and group leaders to take on the important task of explaining why going outside matters.

In this presentation, we spent some time looking at all the benefits associated with outdoor activity and how bringing people outside can really impact a person in many ways. How can we talk about the benefits of spending time outdoors in a way that relates to everyone?

Health benefits of going into nature.

Reduce norepinephrine levels.

Noradrenaline or norepinephrine is an organic chemical that functions in our brain and body as a hormone and neurotransmitter.

“The general function of norepinephrine is to mobilize the brain and body for action. Norepinephrine release is lowest during sleep, rises during wakefulness, and reaches much higher levels during situations of stress or danger, in the so-called fight-or-flight response. In the brain, norepinephrine increases arousal and alertness, promotes vigilance, enhances formation and retrieval of memory, and focuses attention; it also increases restlessness and anxiety.” - Wikipedia  

If you have a lot of noradrenaline in your body, it could be increasing your stress. Spending time in nature lowers the amount of noradrenaline, lowers your blood pressure and can reduce the chances of cardiovascular issues in the future.

Lowering cortisol levels. 

Cortisol is a hormone that your body produces to help deal with long-term, every day stress. Having high cortisol levels could lead to weight gain, mood swings, anxiety, fatigue, high blood pressure, trouble sleeping, skin issues, muscle aches and pains and many other negative health issues.  Spending time in nature reduces cortisol which improves your general well-being.

Lowering levels of distress.

Being close to nature lowers your level of distress. Distress is a higher level of stress than your everyday stress, maybe caused by grief and other major life crises. The study showed that children who lived near a green space had lower levels of distress compared to children who did not. Children who had the most distress in their lives had the most significant decrease when spending time in nature.

Development of NK Cells

“Natural killer cells (also known as NK cells, K cells, and killer cells) are a type of lymphocyte (a white blood cell) and a component of innate immune system. NK cells play a major role in the host-rejection of both tumours and virally infected cells.” - Science Daily

NK cells are designed to destroy viruses. In a study, researchers sent people on a camping trip for three days. They found the activity and production of NK cells increased in those people. The same study done with people in the city showed no increase in production or activities. The NK cells that increased for the people on the camping trip stayed for a whole month afterwards. That means the kids coming to your camp can gain a health benefit that remains with them after they return home from camp.

NK cells also help fight against cancer and tumour development. A study in Japan broke the country up into districts. They noted that out of so many millions of people, a certain number will get and die from cancer. It showed that people who lived in areas that had more access in nature, had a lower percentage of people that died of cancer compared to people who did not have access to nature.

Additional physical and mental health benefits.

Being in nature improves sleep, reduces ADHD, reduces obesity, lowers cholesterol and is a protective factor against myopia (nearsightedness). Our number one source of vitamin D is the sun. It is essential for bone strength and our best defence against depression. Studies show that people who suffer from depression could decrease their depression symptoms by 7% by spending just 30 minutes in nature, once a week.

Why children need to be in nature:

Free play in nature.

build a lean toChildren thrive in a free play environment and it is important for their development. They need a play environment that has multiple textures like, soft, round, gritty, wet, dry and all the random and wonderful things that can be found in nature. Environments that encourage free play build creativity and imagination, develop motor planning skills, foster decision-making skills, fosters independence, develops social skills and collaborative play skills and provides opportunities for kids to discover interests and passions.

When they are in these environments, children become more physical literate. Physical literacy is being competent with physical activity and have the motivation, confidence, understanding and knowledge to participate in it. Someone who is physical literate will make physical activity an important part of their lifestyle.

A study in Norway allowed one group of children to play freely in a natural environment and another to free play in a human built playground. After a year of playing in these different environments, both groups improved their physical literacy, however, the children who played freely in nature had higher physical literacy levels.

Nature prevents direct attention fatigue.

When we overuse the brains inhibitory attention mechanisms, which handle incoming distractions while maintaining focus on a task, we can suffer from directed attention fatigue. This reduces performance and reduces your ability to plan. The way to store this is to get into involuntary attention. There are four ways to do this:

  1. Go into places of great scope. An environment that has many layers and takes your breath away.
  2. Go into a place that you find fascinating.
  3. Go into a place that makes you feel comfortable and safe.
  4. Go into a place that is outside of your regular routine.

When children spend time in nature, they are going into all four of the above places. This can really rejuvenate your focus and decrease stress.

Camps can teach environmental stewardship.

Climate change is the biggest challenge that humanity will ever face. For our species to get through this with the smallest amount of damage possible we must restore the balance on the planet and create healthy ecosystems where humans and every other living thing can thrive. The more outdoor things you do, the more outdoor things you want to do. The more you connect with nature, the more you want to protect it. It is likely that most environmental conservationists have had a transformative experience in the outdoors. Children can start becoming stewards of the earth by experiencing and connecting with nature at your summer camp.

Do we like being outdoors?

While our ancient genes are still living in the forest, most of us live in an environment that is removed from nature and our bodies naturally find this stressful. When kids are asked to draw a happy picture, it almost always has natural elements in it. When adults are asked to speak about a positive experience, it often involves nature. It is in our genes to want to be in nature.

So, why is it so hard to convince someone to go outside?

The reason is because we are social animals and when we look at the stories we tell ourselves about nature, wilderness is a scary place. It is full of dark holes, mystical creatures and scary animals. In our stories people are lost or being chased in the dark woods. We see imagery of people struggling to survive in the wilderness, hiding from hunting bears and it seems like a dangerous place to be.

There is a part of our cultural subconscious, that tells us that nature is scary. Humans are designed to listen to our fears, they live in our genetics and are passed on to the next generation. The more removed and fearful we are of nature, the less our children will desire to be a part of it.  This is because humans are creatures of habit. What feels safe is what makes us feel comfortable. If you asked a group where they felt most relaxed and comfortable, most of them would say indoors, in their comfortable homes.

What can summer camps do?

Camping with Kids

It is time we changed the narrative. The fear story doesn’t serve the outdoor community or humanity either. We need to start changing our conversations to include solid research and evidence of why we need to spend time outdoors. It’s time to practice being in the outdoors. It is especially important for camps to do that and give children these experiences.

Almost 60% of youth go to an overnight or day camp program. Summer camps are impacting more than half of the future generation. It’s a huge impact in numbers and in the power of the experience. Research by the CCA clearly shows that camps have an impact on children’s understanding and connection with the outdoors. 

Can we make better programs and encourage even more children to be outdoors? If you go in the outdoors and have a negative experience, you will not be connected and will want to stay indoors doing other activities.

Position statement of active outdoor play

Access to active play in nature and outdoors - with its risks - is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings - at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.

The full PowerPoint of this presentation will be available to download soon. Please stand by!

Categories: Aca Annual Conference, Benefits Of Camp, For Parents, Nature