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Project Wild Thing Blog: Can we prove that nature is good for us?

Getting people outdoors is an emotional battle, not just a scientific one writes David Bond

Advertising is a mighty persuader. Without necessarily being fully conscious of it, we have all been lured into a purchase at some stage in our lives. Adverts convince us that we want something, and the good ones convince us that we need something. When that same advert tells you that something is scientifically proven to be good for your children – well, who can resist? Being the marketing director of nature, I really wanted to make scientific claims for my product. To convince people to consume more nature, I needed to tick all the boxes. But is it really necessary to prove that something’s good for you? Or is it enough just to believe that it is?

Whilst making Project Wild Thing I interviewed Baroness Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist who studies various aspects of children’s brains. Recently, she’s been considering the effect that screen time has on them. Susan has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years for making ‘value judgements’ rather than basing her opinion on fact or scientific proof. When I met Susan she asked me whether if something feels so obvious and right, why does it need to be proven? I was impressed with Susan’s clarity. Her point is that children’s brains are perfectly evolved to adapt to the world around them. So who reject the claim that our children’s brains will change if their screen time keeps increasing. Susan reassured me that feeling that something is important and right for my children should be enough of a reason to do something about it.

Why is there relatively little solid evidence that nature is good for you? Is it because it is hard to prove? I began researching and discovered some evidence. Maybe one of the reasons nature hasn’t been studied and tested a lot is because there are very few ways of making money from the positive results – so the science does not get much funding. Until now, nobody has truly seen the benefits of flogging this amazing product.

Among the studies I did find, was evidence that university students with natural views score better on tests, that patients with a natural view from their room recover faster and require fewer painkillers than those that look out over a city, that time in green settings reduces children’s ADHD symptoms and that the more nature we get during childhood, the more we want as adults. All the studies found that nature is good – none found harmful side effects.

As well as these studies, lots of great organisations are coming together to keep the research going. The RSPB have done brilliant work with the University of Essex to examine children’s relationship with nature using data from 8 – 12 year olds all over the UK. ‘Mappiness’ is an app developed by George MacKerron from the LSE and Susana Mourato from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. It measures where people are at various times throughout the day and how happy they say they are. The results show that people are least happy in in an urban environment. Mountains and coniferous forests have come out as the happiest places to be so far.

A more recent study has been developed by University of Derby psychologists and aims to help people connect with nature and boost their wellbeing. The app is called ‘Finding Nature’ and can be downloaded in the Google Play store. All data from the app will be investigated by psychologists and used for their research.

These studies will add to the long list of reasons to go outdoors. But imagine if it was 100% proved tomorrow that screen time might kill you, and that going outdoors is amazing for your health. There would still be plenty of people using screens. Look at cigarettes. I know that fruit and vegetables are good for me but I still don’t eat enough of them. Scientific proof might be enough to convince the cynics to get outdoors but unless we can win the emotional battle to persuade children to love the outdoors, the competitors – TV and games manufacturers, for example – with their massive budgets, will win…

All content and images © Green Lions Ltd 2013

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