• Blog
  • by: Stuart Brown, MD. National Institute for Play
  • August 23, 2019

Play and Nature

In this post we will examine how combining play with NATURE can amplify the positive effects that both have on human well-being.

There are many examples throughout history of our intuitive sense that nature is good for us. As far back as 500 BCE Cyrus the Great built elaborate Persian gardens for relaxation. Paracelsus, a pioneering physician of the 16th century wrote, “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.” The great landscape architect Frederick Olmsted wrote, “the occasional contemplation of natural scenes… is favorable to the health and vigor…and especially to the health and vigor of the intellect.” 

There is broad ranging and growing amounts of scientific data strongly indicating that human and social health improves in nature environments. Specific examples include research showing that a 15-minute walk in the woods reduces stress and induces more optimistic perspectives.  Post-operative recovery times are reduced with images of trees and flowers in hospital rooms and, similarly, that the toll depression and obesity are increasingly taking on urban dwellers is mitigated by the availability of parks and green spaces. 

The benefits of being in and near nature are no longer intuitive alone; the data now exists to prove that life is better and disease and even mortality indices are reduced as nature is more a part of our lives.

Disconnection from nature is the new normal e.g., greatly diminished amounts of time kids and adults are outdoors – driven by long work hours, the attraction of screen time and more. Scientific research is showing that this “indoor imprisonment” causes mental health and stress-related illnesses. Being embedded in nature – which is our heritage, lowers stress, improves physiology and reduces predilections toward mental and physical health problems. Though stated here in general terms, they can all be reinforced with exhaustive research data.

As regular readers of this blog know, the science of play informs us that play is a fundamental process of virtually all mobile life forms and their play patterns vary from simple to complex in direct proportion to the complexity of the species.

Looking at play patterns across species, scientists have learned that these simple to complex behaviors all are initiated from pre-wired places deep in the earliest crafted parts of the brain, parts that are similar across all species. There is a lot yet to be learned about play, but the research that we know of today shows that it is as pervasive and as central to well-being as sleeping-dreaming is for animals and humans alike.

Innately motivated, pleasurable actions - play or playful behavior – will, even in the short time of the playful engagement, increase one’s sense of optimism, foster fresh perspectives, lower stress, and at times foster imaginative reveries. Play behavior repeated regularly over time enhances empathy, curiosity, and stabilizes our emotional moods.

Similarly, while the importance of being close to nature and being playful has been intuitively right for many, neither were, historically, greatly appreciated by mainstream culture. Today we have an extensive amount of quantitative, evidence-based information supporting the import of both nature and play. It’s time to consider integrating more of these two beneficial phenomena into our lives – I believe we will learn that combining play and nature yields much more benefit than the sum of their individual benefits.

Want to learn more about play?

Dr. Stuart Brown shares his unique insight on play in his scholarly blog

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