Accessibility in Our National Parks

Sprawling prairies, rising mountains, and crystal-clear lakes are just some of the beautiful landscapes that the United States has to offer. Add in some historic knowledge, cultural sites, and learning opportunities about geology, wildlife, and ecosystems, and you’ve got yourself just a taste of what national parks and sites have to offer. National parks aim to be for all Americans, but has it always been this way? Is it really available for everyone?

Unfortunately, national parks have not always been inclusive. Many parks have struggled with accessibility for all its visitors for years. There are many people who live with visual, auditory, physical, or mental disabilities who are not able to achieve the same experiences in national parks as everyone else. Many parks have physical limitations within their systems, whether it be steep hiking trails or a lack of tactile information in a visitor center, and these obstacles need to be overcome.

boardwalkTOC
Avalanche Lake hike with off-road wheelchair ©NPS/Jacob W. Frank

When there’s a rocky trail or river to cross on foot, how can we ensure that all people are able to visit these places without altering the landscape? Many campgrounds, facilities, parking lots, sidewalks, and interpretive programs are not always accessible to differently abled individuals. This then limits the amount of people who visit these places, as well as diminishes the ability of visitors and their companions to fully enjoy the park. In an article published in the National Geographic, a visitor who had a son in a wheelchair said that she used to carry her son around the parks so that he could see the scenery that were obstructed by barriers on trails(Djossa, 2018). Thankfully, there have been some new developments in the past few years that have been aimed towards  fixing the accessibility problem faced by  national parks across the country.

In 2006, Sue Masica, the then Associate Director of Park Planning, Facilities, and Lands for the National Park Service, released a statement that acknowledged the lack of accessible facilities in US national parks and discussed plans to fix many of the issues that the NPS had long been aware of. Many buildings in the 400+ national sites were built in the 1960s or earlier, before accessibility options were made a requirement by the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act. Additionally, Masica  shared in her statement that the NPS was working on creating guidelines to help park planners manage natural landscapes in a way that meets the needs of visitors but also does not damage or harm their natural landscapes.

WHSA_interdune_boardwalk_2
Fully Accessible Interdune Boardwalk in White Sand Dunes National Monument ©NPS 2019

Changes both large and small are occurring in parks all over the NPS System. Arches National Park now has barrier-free trails and audio-visual programming (NPS website), White Sands National Monument has a new 900-foot wheelchair-accessible interdune boardwalk with interpretative rangers onsite, at Cowpens National Battlefield in South Carolina, Braille and audio tapes were installed to enable visually impaired visitors to experience the information presented in the visitor center, and at Joshua Tree National Park, a day-use area was re-done by developing four new accessible picnic sites and re-constructing 1,420 linear feet of surfaced walkways (Masica, 2006).

A major move towards continuing accessibility-related developments in our national parks was made with the creation of the Accessibility Task Force. In 2012, the  National Park Service established the Accessibility Task Force with the goal of improving accessibility in over 400 National Parks and Sites throughout the United States. For the five-year period of 2015 to 2020, their three goals are: (1) to create a welcoming environment by increasing the ability of the National Park Service to serve visitors and staff with disabilities, (2) to ensure that new facilities and programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities, and (3) to upgrade existing facilities, programs, and services to be accessible to people with disabilities.

de5f5caf-a1f5-4433-851b-850949dd6440-AP18176824151669
Green River at Mammoth Cave National Park ©Bryan Woolson/AP

Of course, the question remains: how are the leaders and implementers of this project making these much-needed changes without compromising the natural features of the park that people come to see? According to Sue Masica’s 2006 statement, the NPS is working closely with the U.S. Access Board to develop facilities that are accessible for all but that also preserve the integrity of the natural sites. Accessibility remains the focal point of these new developments because one of the key missions of the NPS is to “ensure that visitors with disabilities can visit the parks, and to the greatest extent practical, have access to the same experiences and services provided to all visitors.” (Masica, 2006). There are many construction efforts that have been accomplished since then, and many projects are still underway.

Along with physical changes being made to the parks, another helpful development has been the introduction of the all-inclusive entrance pass that provides access to 2000+ interagency sites for visitors with permanent disabilities. Other than a one-time $10 processing fee, the pass is free for disabled individuals, as long as they are U.S. Citizens or permanent residents. Better still, the pass allows its owner to bring upto four additional visitors at no cost to sites within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), USDA Forest Service (USDA FS), National Park Service (NPS), and US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) (USGS.gov).

With all of these developing changes making National Parks more accessible, the hope is that more people with disabilities are encouraged to get outside and experience the joy and beauty of these natural areas. Our national sites are meant to be explored by all, so please, get out there and enjoy all that the national parks have to offer!

2018 Access Pass
Access Pass © USGS 2018

For further reading:

Urban Nature in Low-Income Communities

Get outside. What does it mean to most people? Your answer may vary based on your surroundings. If someone lives near a park, taking the dog for a walk might be optimal. If you live near a local gym, perhaps getting in a mile or two on the treadmill is your choice.

But what can you when do when your options are limited? How can someone go for an evening jog if the neighborhoods they traverse are unsafe at night? How can children play outside if the streets are perpetually congested? For many low-income individuals, opportunities to “get outside” are rarities.

In the United States, this reality is being depicted by an idea called the “ghetto miasma.” Coined by New York Times writer Helen Epstein, ghetto miasma is best described as a myriad of diseases including cancer, diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure that is killing America’s urban poor. The high concentration of traffic and industry pollution, lack of access to health resources, and limited supply of healthy food stores nearby devastates inner-city populations. Additionally, the stress of poverty and racism causes the deterioration of their bodies. Scientific research suggests that simply living in urban areas is accelerating the aging process of low-income black Americans (Hache, 2015).

chicago tribune-inner-cities-rebuild-crime-trump-perspec-0120-md-20170119
High Crime Rates And Low Health Outcomes Characterize The Urban Ecology of American Inner Cities ©Chicago Tribune

Internationally too, the impoverished generally struggle to exercise and spend time in nature. For example, in Moldova, a small former Soviet country in eastern Europe, the concept of “sporty” seems to only be used in reference to fashion; it is not connected to healthy living or people’s lifestyles. Though there is great appreciation for nature in Moldova’s capital city of Chisinau, the poorer areas of the country are in disrepair. Much like the disadvantaged areas of the U.S., leisure locations such as shopping malls, movie theaters, and ice-skating rinks are rare. When in town, you may see many people resting on blankets or park benches, even in colder weather. However, their public parks do not have any playgrounds for children. Instead, many of them are filled with dilapidated exercise equipment that go unused. Natural areas such as forests and ponds have muddy, unpaved paths that are not conducive to walking and are hence, rarely visited (Adamson, 2019).

Change began to arise for the Moldovan people in 2015, when they held their first annual marathon in Chisinau, drawing in participants and spectators from all over the country. The “marathon” is actually a sporting event composed of four different races: a full marathon, a half marathon, a ten-kilometer race, and a five-kilometer “fun run.” This makes the event more appealing than traditional marathons, as it is inclusive of all age ranges and ability statuses. It also gives those who aren’t quite in shape to run a full marathon, as it typically takes months to train for one, a place to start.

4fcc9e47c6bd5da19be9cfab66114b89
Marathon Runners in Chisinau, Moldova ©Chisinau Marathon

Of course, American cities are no strangers to marathons. Both Chicago and New York City hold annual marathons. Not only is this a great way to encourage urbanites-, both participants and spectators-, to spend time outdoors, but the wheelchair race is also inclusive of those with disabilities. A way to improve this would be to introduce shorter events such as half-marathons, a10k, or a 5k to encourage participation from those who cannot train for a full marathon.

Another way to incorporate nature and health into low-income, especially urban, areas is to open the area up to vendors (Irimia, et al., 2016). The rising dependency on street vendors in urban ecosystems in the global south has helped merge the gaps between “formal” and “informal” economic systems. A study conducted in the cities of Delhi, India and Phnom Penh, Cambodia used oral accounts from street vendors and documented inventory of product sold to assess the demographics of street vendors. It was found that vending is a great economic opportunity for low-income urbanites, especially those who may be lacking education or other skills. It was also found to be a fairly gender inclusive trade, with about 60% of vendors being women (Hummel, 2017).

1.-Trees-provide-shade-for-all-including-vulnerable-groups-such-as-street-vendors-in-Bangalore Harini Nagendra the nature of cities
Street Vendors Set Up Carts Underneath Trees in Bangalore, India ©Harini Nagendra, The Nature of Cities

In 2001, the Street Vendor Project was founded in New York’s Lower East Side. This project pooled together money for the Push Cart Fund, offering loans to street vendors. Beneficiaries of this program include Munnu Duwan, a Bangladeshi-American man who was able to expand his business of Indian and Arabian food in a time of declining hot dog sales-, Jiang Chao Qun, a Chinese-American woman who sells fruits and vegetables on the streets of Chinatown-, and Margarita Villegas, a Mexican-American woman who sells tamales in East Harlem, where Subways and Taco Bells had begun to takeover. Not only has the rising popularity of street vendors allowed locals to integrate themselves with urban nature, it has given urbanites some much-needed access to health foods in areas where they are typically scarce and has also given a way to maintain an area culture that is more authentic than gentrified.

U.S. National Archives Chicago Families Enjoying The Summer Weather At The 12th Street Beach On Lake Michigan Aug 1973
Chicago Families Enjoying The Summer Weather At The 12th Street Beach On Lake Michigan, August 1973 ©The U.S. National Archives

For further reading:

  • Hache, J., & Chalifoux, T. M. (2015). Enough to Make You Sick. A Case Approach to Perioperative Drug-Drug Interactions,903-907. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-7495-1_203
  • Figure 2f from: Irimia R, Gottschling M (2016) Taxonomic revision of Rochefortia Sw. (Ehretiaceae, Boraginales). Biodiversity Data Journal 4: E7720. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.4.e7720. (n.d.). doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f
  • E. Ferrara et al., “A Pilot Study Mapping Citizens’ Interaction with Urban Nature,” 2018 IEEE 16th Intl Conf on Dependable, Autonomic and Secure Computing, 16th Intl Conf on Pervasive Intelligence and Computing, 4th Intl Conf on Big Data Intelligence and Computing and Cyber Science and Technology Congress(DASC/PiCom/DataCom/CyberSciTech), Athens, 2018, pp. 836-841. doi: 10.1109/DASC/PiCom/DataCom/CyberSciTec.2018.00-21
  • Figure 2f from: Irimia R, Gottschling M (2016) Taxonomic revision of Rochefortia Sw. (Ehretiaceae, Boraginales). Biodiversity Data Journal 4: E7720. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.4.e7720. (n.d.). doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f
  • Macdonald, R. (2004). JSTOR: A History20047Roger C. Schonfeld. JSTOR: A History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2003. 412 pp., ISBN: 0691115311 US$29.95 (hardback). The Electronic Library,22(1), 84-85. doi:10.1108/02640470410520203
  • Hummel, C. (2017). Disobedient Markets: Street Vendors, Enforcement, and State Intervention in Collective Action. Comparative Political Studies,50(11), 1524-1555. doi:10.1177/0010414016679177

 

 

Outdoor Education and its Effect on Children, Teachers, and the School Community

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “traveling thousands of miles is better than reading thousands of books.” Essentially, this famous saying means that individuals learn more from traveling and being outdoors as opposed to reading materials from books indoors. While being outside, students are able to experience things themselves, learn more by taking advantage of their learning space, and interact with their surroundings to fully experience the educational objectives. Inspired by this famous proverb, I began paying more attention to the how nature is being included in different educational settings. Today, many elementary schools, high schools, and even universities are incorporating outdoor learning as part of their curriculum. Schools across the nation are adapting to this new type of learning style in hopes of seeing a positive effect on students’ learning behaviors. Based on current research, it seems that learning outdoors can really produce positive behavioral changes in students, parents, and community leaders. 

100930-f-7527j-125
School instructors leading students to learn in outdoor classrooms at a youth center © Stephanie Jacobs 2010

As someone possessing a dual-citizenship, I was immensely fortunate to have a five-year long study abroad experience in Hong Kong. The first thing I noticed there was a higher emphasis on outdoor education. Teachers were always actively looking for new local parks for their students to explore and new materials they could observe as a class. These elementary school experiences resonated with me the most out of all that I have learned overseas.

Fieldtrips such as these are more memorable to us compared to other learning experiences because of our sensory awareness of our surroundings. Individuals tend to remember concepts for a longer amount of time after learning them outdoors because we generally associate this new knowledge with the in-depth and meaningful experience that activities such as fieldtrips provide (Mahar, 2011). I encountered this firsthand because the focus on outdoor education declined as I continued my high school and college studies in the United States. Students here are not engaged with nature nearly as much as most other students around the globe, and there are a lot of different factors that contribute to this issue.

Outdoor Education
Outdoor learning not only benefit students, but it also benefits teachers and the community as well © Krystle Crossman 2016

As technology is becoming more advanced, “the average American child spends five to eight hours a day in front of a digital screen, often at the expense of unstructured play in nature” (O’Mara 2018). Socioeconomic and geographical factors influence opportunity for nature play as well. Because of pressures of work and lack of time, most parents do not have the time to take their children outdoors. Parents worry that allowing children to stay outdoors for extended periods of time can pose a risk to their child’s safety, and so the children remain indoors. Metropolitan neighborhoods also have a shortage of child-friendly parks and green areas in general. Because of issues like these, it becomes the teacher’s responsibility to debunk negative stigma about children spending time in nature and learning outdoors. Thankfully, teachers in the United States are currently being encouraged to add more outdoor learning opportunities to their curriculum. Large amounts of research data have indicated that outdoor education positively challenges children both intellectually and emotionally (Duncan et al., 1988).

One of the strongest appeals to outdoor education is its macroscopic focus on the learning curriculum. Outdoor education is generally facilitated through the laissez-faire leadership style. Students are encouraged to work on their own projects. The assignment expectations are more hands-off too. Teachers give a lot of autonomy to the students to work independently and diligently in order to accomplish their set goals, targets, and deadlines. In comparison, indoor education has been suggested to be destructive and potentially harmful in the long run, since it forcefully changes students’ working styles (Oberbillig et al., 2014). There is no one cookie-cutter way of learning and placing students in a confined learning environment with strict guidelines can interfere negatively with the classroom enjoyment and productivity.

fiddleheads school can
Children learning about wildlife in groups ©Kit Harrington 2015

In fact, a recent research article published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment addressed the difference in classroom engagement between classes taught indoors and outdoors. Dr. Ming Kuo and Dr. Matthew Browning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a study to examine whether and how lessons in nature boost classroom engagement (2018). They hypothesized that “lessons in nature have positive – not negative – effects on subsequent classroom engagement” (2018, pp.1). The total study group had 100 indoor and outdoor lesson plans for the first five weeks. As predicted, “in 48 out of 100 paired comparisons, the nature lesson was a full standard deviation better than its classroom counterpart; in 20 of the 48, the nature lesson was over two standard deviations better” (Kuo & Browning, 2018). Teachers also discovered that students were able to engage in future lessons after learning in nature much better than after learning in an indoor classroom. Research has shown that physical activity might play a part in this boost of classroom engagement (Mahar, 2011). Spending sufficient time moving around in nature can rejuvenate both the teacher’s and student’s attention span and interest level.

Like any other research project, there are some limitations to this study as well. To eliminate any other factors that might affect classroom engagement, the researchers should have asked the same teachers to teach the same topics with the same instructional approach for the most accurate data results. Instead, they gave out different lesson plans, and tested different education styles with different sets of instructors and students. Nevertheless, this research adds to the growing body of research that points towards the obvious benefits of learning outdoors.

gardening-with-three-girls
Outdoor learning class in progress ©First Things First 2018

 

Types of Outdoor Education

Historically, there have been two types of outdoor education. These two types of education include outdoor pursuits and environmental education. Outdoor pursuits refer to the “skill-based approach to outdoor activities such as canoeing, climbing, camping, and orienteering” (Smith, 1987). This type of outdoor education is similar to fieldtrips that students participate in, which provides them with in-depth practical experience. Supporters of outdoor pursuits argue that learning outdoors can promote personal and social growth, as well as autonomy. According to scientists, one secret to student satisfaction is sense of autonomy in the activities they are involved in (Huff & Lash, 2017). Generally speaking, disengaged students are the ones who are more likely to be absent and are less productive in school. When students feel that their contributions and ideas matter, then they are more likely to put forth the effort to contribute.

Hands-On-Nature Anarchy Zone Ithaca Children's Garden
Hands-On-Nature Anarchy Zone for independent learning ©Ithaca Children’s Garden 2018

The other type of outdoor education known as environmental education uses a similar learning approach but with a different area of focus. Environmental education, also known as outdoor education, elevates educational objectives better than indoor education. This is largely because learning outdoor allows students to hold themselves accountable for their own work. The curriculum for working outside cuts back on management and improves efficiency with the coursework too. Teachers are also impacted positively. Adopting this style of learning means that teachers and professors are able to lead the class in “more engaging ways after a bit of walking, a bit of a breather and change in scenery, [which] can reduce their stress levels” (Kuo & Browning, 2018, pp.11). Another research study discovered that outdoor environmental education has a positive impact on teachers’ behavior as well. North Carolina State University handed out a survey with teacher interview data about their impressions of outdoor programs and the experiences of their students. The teachers’ responses indicated that outdoor education was a more effective method for instruction, especially when it came to science classes (Moore et al., 2016). Outdoor education not only has a positive effect on children, but on teachers and the school community as well.

Teacher students looking macroinvertebrate
Students study macro-invertebrates found in nature © Hagerty Ryan 2016

The implementation of outdoor learning has skyrocketed in the past few decades. Researchers and scholars have identified plenty of benefits to outdoor education, specifically for outdoor science lessons. A study conducted at the North Carolina State University discovered that “teachers’ enthusiasm about the students’ excitement for outdoor lessons and learning about science were apparent during the field observations and were common themes in their reflection papers as well as their verbal feedback (Carrier, 2009). Generally, outdoor education is believed to promote personal and social development of students by increasing their knowledge and understanding of their self-identity, as well their role as a member of the community. Learning outdoors not only benefits children, but it also aids teachers in decreasing the level of stress and increasing job satisfaction. According to the school principal of the Natural Connections Project, a 4-year outdoor demonstration funded project, working outdoors creates engagement, heightens interest, and fosters better participation (Carlill, 2011). Higher engagement from students, in turn, empower and motivate teachers to plan more creative curricula.

Currently, there are several environmental education programs that are taking place in elementary schools. One example is the Lenoir County summer programming in North Carolina. This program explicitly highlights partnerships between schools and informal science organizations. A Time for Science Nature and Learning Center partnered with the Lenoir County School system for a six-week Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) camp that allows public school students to do many fun outdoor learning activities. The North Carolina Arboretum in Ashville is also organizing a similar outdoor learning program. Their initiative for young children is called Project EXPLORE (Experiences Promoting Learning Outdoors for Research and Education). This program reached over 98 teachers in 22 countries and more than 4500 students over the past three years (Duncan, Beck, Granum 1988). Teachers have their students to do weekly field observations on activities such as a “Tree Phenology Project”, a “Squirrel Population Density Project”, or a “Bird Population Occurrence Project”. These types of outdoor learnings include many discussions and team bonding activities. Thermo Fisher Scientific and many other science facilities have shown their belief in this by generously providing grants for schools to fund these successful initiatives.

6._building_a_temporary_village_outside_the_classroom_is_a_collaborative_effort_k.harrington
Children learn imaginative play, science, and exploration at a school fairy garden ©Kit Harrington 2018

 

Additionally, there are college and university sponsored nature-based programs that serve students and teachers as well. MYLES offer a variety of field science expeditions for high school students in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and Mt. Mitchell. Similarly, Montreal College highly advocates for student development through outdoor education. They provide a field based intensive environmental training and research program for high school students across the state of North Carolina into different outdoor programs. High school students in the program can experience studying a variety of ecosystems and collecting scientific data as they learn more about nature. The program’s mission is to “expand on high school students’ interest in science and science related careers through living, studying, and hiking in the natural world” (MYLES of Science, 2019). Students work closely with professional scientists and science faculty in outdoor research.

These program shows that using outdoor resources as ways to learn fundamental STEM concepts is very effective. Programs such as these have been found to have not just terrific academic outcomes, but they help to properly cultivate strong civic attitudes and behaviors among children as well. Outdoor education also enhances the important role that students play in the community. These programs are great ways to build a foundation for the next generations to learn through taking initiative.

wayne national forest usda
Outdoor education is the most effective when learning STEM related materials ©Gary Chancey USDA 2017

All in all, outdoor education has a positive effect on children, teachers, and school communities. It is apparent that outdoor education allows many populations to grow dynamically. Students are able to develop a stronger sense of self, confidence, problem solving skills, as well as decision making skills. All these transferrable skills are not only beneficial to learning new material in class, but also readily prepare students to learn outside of school. Teachers are more engaged with the children when teaching outdoors, which yields a higher job satisfaction. All the advantages of an outdoor learning curriculum create a strong sense of community and belonging that develops a safe space for everyone. The joy of outdoor learning is much more rewarding than learning through textbooks. In the future, outdoor education should continue to be encouraged in all curricula for more efficient and productive learning.

For further reading:

  • Carlill, E. (2011, July). Natural Connections Demonstration Project. Retrieved February 9, 2019, from Learning Outside the Classroom website: https://learningoutsidetheclassroomblog.org/history/
  • Carrier, S. (2009). The Effects of Outdoor Science Lessons with Elementary School Students on Preservice Teachers’ Self-Efficacy. Journal of Elementary Science Education,21(2), 35-48. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43155850
  • Duncan, K., Beck, D., & Granum, R. (1988). Project Explore: An Activity-Based Counseling Group. The School Counselor,35(3), 215-219. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23900902
  • Huff Sisson, J., & Lash, M. (2017). Outdoor Learning Experiences Connecting Children to Nature: Perspectives from Australia and the United States. YC Young Children,72(4), 8-16. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90013699
  • Kuo, Ming, et al. “Do Lessons in Nature Boost Subsequent Classroom Engagement? Refueling Students in Flight.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 12 Dec. 2017, http://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02253/full.
  • Mahar, M. T. (2011). Impact of short bouts of physical activity on attention-to-task in elementary school children.  Med.52, S60–S64. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2011.01.026
  • Moore, A., Lynn, K., and Thomas, A. K. (2016). Engaging students in science through a nature hike: a case of two students with ADHD.  J. Undergrad. Res.13, 73–80.
  • MYLES of Science. (2019). Retrieved February 18, 2019, from https://www.montreat.edu/about/event-services/myles/
  • Oberbillig, D., Randle, D., Middendorf, G., & Cardelús, C. (2014). Outdoor learning in formal ecological education: Looking to the future. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment,12(7), 419-420. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43187839
  • O’Mara, Collin. “Kids Do Not Spend Nearly Enough Time Outside. Here’s How (and Why) to Change That.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 May 2018, washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2018/05/30/kids-dont-spend-nearly-
  • Smith, P. (1987). Outdoor Education and its Educational Objectives. Geography,72(3), 209-216. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40571620
  • Van Deman, B. (1974). With Feeling Comes Understanding: Sensory Awareness of the Environment. Science and Children,12(2), 13-13. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43147565
1521917316862
Learning in nature, a hands-on approach ©GerhardHealer 2019

The Elderly in Nature

The discipline of occupational therapy focuses on teaching people with physical limitations how to complete everyday tasks. Some common goals of occupational therapists include helping children with disabilities function in school and social environments, helping injured individuals regain their mobility, and helping elderly adults with physical and cognitive limitations to get through their day to day lives (American Occupational Therapy Association 2018).

Although the following article focuses on elderly populations, it is important to know that in the past, the most popular demographic associated with occupational therapy has been youths with disabilities. Child patients usually exercise in confined environments that often fail to stimulate their senses and make them emotionally uncomfortable. This inspired pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom to create a positive change to the field of occupational therapy. In 2010, she established TimberNook, a comprehensive nature-based development program for children with special needs, which is now active in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Hanscom says that her program works well because nature is “the ultimate sensory experience for all children and a necessary form of prevention for sensory dysfunction” (Hanscom 2014).

old-men-exercise

In general, aging can cause cognitive and motors functions to decline, leading to many elderly adults losing their independent living situation.

With this in mind, occupational therapists are not only widening their range of treatment options, but also their range of clientele. Life expectancy is increasing, especially in the United States, which has the highest life expectancy for people over the age of 75. This leaves occupational therapists with a new group to focus on: the elderly. This begs the question: what can time spent in nature, during both therapy and recreation, offer the elderly for their physical and mental health?

When children experience motor complications, they may seem frustrated, high energy, and anxious. With the elderly, it is often the opposite. Physical limitations may result in fatigue, depression, and being lethargic. Many of the limitations of traditional indoor therapy leave a person feeling disconnected. Outdoor Kids Occupational Therapy, another occupational therapy program that integrates nature with treatment, argues that there are three main things that patients in traditional therapy need that they may not be getting. One is the ability to connect with family and friends, not just the therapist. The second is transformation through therapy. Therapy through nature is shown to lead to breakthroughs in family relationships and mental health. The final one is the great outdoors themselves. People, especially children, should have time to spend in nature. The rule extends to the elderly, as they are also in a time of their life characterized by motor difficulty, sensory limitation, and a dependency on others. Parents of children in that have gone through outdoor occupational therapy confirm that their children are able to move more freely, are more coordinated, and above all, more social and more confident (Outdoor Kids N.D.).

shutterstock_470032862

It would be unreasonable to expect elderly adults to be using a playground like children, just as it would be to expect them to do vigorous exercise like younger adults. A new phenomenon has emerged, starting in South Korea and rapidly spreading to countries like the United States: therapeutic gardening.

In general, aging can cause cognitive and motors functions to decline, leading to many elderly adults losing their independent living situation. Therapeutic gardening involves the integration of gardening activities into the daily routines of patients.

Gardener watering plants

Horticulture therapy now has a presence in many assisted living homes and dementia residences. One way this activity can benefit patients is by allowing them their autonomy. Patients are given the freedom to explore through touch. The exposure to nature also provides patients with great sensory stimulation, and has led to reduced pain, less stress, and improved sleep cycles. Dementia patients are seen falling less and becoming less agitated. Additionally, therapeutic gardening is low budget and non-pharmacological (Detweiler 2012).

The fusion of horticulture into medicinal fields such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and psychology has created a positive change in how we view medicine and therapy. The focus has shifted from searching for fast-acting cures to the recreation and stability associated with being in nature.

Smiling old man

For further reading:

  • “About Occupational Therapy.” Aota.org, 2018, http://www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy.aspx.
  • “Outdoor Kids Occupational Therapy.” Outdoor Kids Occupational Therapy, http://www.outdoorkidsot.com/.
  • Detweiler et al (2012). What Is the Evidence to Support the Use of Therapeutic Gardens for the Elderly? Psychiatry Investigation. 9, 100-110.
  • Hanscom, Angela. “Nature is the Ultimate Sensory Experience: A Pediatric Occupational Therapist Makes the Case for Nature Therapy.” Children & Nature Network, 12 May 2014.

depositphotos_110102574-stock-photo-group-of-old-people-walking

 

The National Parks are Great, So Why Doesn’t Everyone Go There?

There is a high chance you’ve heard of or visited places like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. These are all national parks within the United States and are seen as natural gems by millions of people. The ability to visit and explore stunning natural landscapes that our earth has created has helped define the United States, as it has created symbolic images that are known across the globe. Fifty-nine national parks span from coast to coast, and according to the National Park website, these parks attract millions of visitors annually as they are a great way for people to explore the outdoors.

Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park

People visit national parks in order to explore nature and to “get away from it all”. Many people go with their friends and families to participate in activities such as hiking, swimming, camping, wildlife viewing, and backpacking. While you might go with the intention of engaging in various activities, the one thing that is bound to happen is that you will leave feeling inspired and refreshed. An article by Florence Williams published in Outside Magazine discusses how being in nature has been proven to refresh your memory capacity and relieve mental fatigue because your brain is not focused on the stressful tasks that occur in daily. Nature then helps foster introspection, which in turn allows for you to think deeply about your own life, who you are, and what your goals and dreams may be.

            Despite all these benefits, not everyone goes to national parks.  In fact, according to a survey conducted by the National Park Service (NPS), only 22% of national park visitors in 2013 were minorities, despite making up 37% of the population (Nelson, 2015).

Despite all these benefits, not everyone goes to national parks.  In fact, according to a survey conducted by the National Park Service (NPS), only 22% of national park visitors in 2013 were minorities, despite making up 37% of the population (Nelson, 2015). This indicates that there is a significant race disparity between national park visitors.

The main visitors of national parks appear to be older, white people. Studies have suggested that this population has a greater financial ability to visit national parks in the regular because the majority of them have at least a graduate degree and therefore make over 100k+ annually (Kearney, 2013). Although it may not seem expensive at first glance, there are significant costs associated with taking such leisurely trips to different parts of the country. Many national parks are isolated, so at least a sturdy car and money for gas is required to get there. Flying to these destinations is even more costly. If you are camping, you need a tent, sleeping bag, food, and various other camping and safety gear that is required based on the location. There are also entrance fees to these parks, which are usually per car instead of per person. Plus, employed people would need to acquire time off of work to be able to go on trips and lower-paying jobs usually do not offer many vacation days.

Arches National Park Photo by National Park Service
Arches National Park Photo ©National Park Service

However, this gap in economic resources is not the only reason for the lack of minority visitors at national parks in the U.S. Many minorities who were interviewed about this topic in Washington, D.C. stated that they had less of a drive to visit these places due to a general undesirability of the outdoors, a perception that such places are unsafe, or feeling unwelcome. Most people dislike being around bugs and mosquitos and many people fear bear attacks, so the concept of being in the “Great Outdoors” is overall unappealing to minorities (Kearney, 2013).

Cultural differences play a role in this divide because not everyone is crazy about nature. One’s own individual values, rural or urban upbringing, and their perception of what nature is to them are all factors that must be considered. Religious differences can also be reason that people are not interested in becoming involved in nature (Schultz et al., 2000). The functional view of nature between cultural groups can also vary, but overall nature can be used to answer human needs, but there is a requirement for respect and responsibility towards nature (Bujis et al., 2009).

Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park

This race disparity problem needs our attention because it is important for everyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity, to get outside. Dr. Ming Kuo, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studies the effects of nature on people. Dr. Kuo claims that the mental and physical benefits of nature are countless, such as lowering blood pressure, combating obesity, relieving stress and anxiety, and helping one focus, to name a few (Kuo, 2015). If nature can provide significant medical aid in human health, there needs to be an increase in efforts to encourage people within all racial backgrounds to engage in nature.

Personally, I believe that efforts can be made by creating diversity programs within the national park system. There currently is a diversity program for underrepresented college students and young adults. This can be implemented and grown so the next generation of people seeking the outdoors can be welcomed and encouraged to enjoy national parks.

Stay tuned for more in my next article for Diversity in National Parks series!

index
Yosemite National Park

For further reading:

  • Bujis et al. (2009). No wilderness for immigrants: Cultural differences in images of nature and landscape preferences. Landscape and Urban Planning. 91, 2-3
  • Kearney, R. (2013). White People Love Hiking. Minorities Don’t. Here’s Why. The New Republic.
  • Kuo, M. (2015). How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in Psychology. 6, 2-3.
  • Nelson, G. (2015). Why Are Our Parks So White? The New York Times.
  • Schultz, P.W., Zelezny, L., Dalrymple, N.J., (2000). A multinational perspective on the relation between Judeo-Christian religious beliefs and attitudes of environmental concern. Environmental Behavior. 32, 576–591.
  • Williams, F. (2012). Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning. Outside Magazine.

 

Feel the Ground Beneath You!

Hiking has proven to make adults lead a happier, healthier, and more energy-filled life. What’s better than getting energized from caffeine? Hiking in nature! All hikers do have to tolerate some bug bites, bruises, and blisters to enjoy quality time with nature but trust me, it is so worth it! For example, this past month, I joined the ranks of many other nature walkers and went hiking with my family in Lake Tahoe, California.

 

 

When I was in San Francisco, we went to a few hiking trails, and it was very relaxing. Hiking helped us freshen up, and it was even better when we could smell the fresh air. I felt like I got so much energy afterwards, and the cold shower after we were done felt amazing. My parents being almost 50 years old felt like they were more mentally refreshed. My dad said that connecting with nature felt really nice and he thinks it could help with depression. Well, he is correct! Hiking and getting involved with nature helps you feel less hopeless. It helps people who are suffering lead a healthier lifestyle. Studies show that people who do not spend much time in nature have more mental health issues. People who go to parks and on walks have lower levels of stress. However, just doing that is not good enough. You really have to make sure you put away the electronics when you are in nature. You are not getting all of the benefits if you’re on your cellphone. This is not only a rule for people with mental health issues, but for all of us! Hiking helps us all in many ways. It can make us feel peaceful and teach us how to really connect with ourselves.

According to an article published in the widely respected Physical Activity and Public Health journal, healthy adults need to engage in moderately intense aerobic activities for a minimum of 30 minutes at least five days a week in order to maintain sound health. Adults are highly recommended to keep good health by doing exercise to strengthen muscles, and this can be something as fun as hiking.

Hiking works your leg muscles and is far more effective than simply walking. This is because you are more heavily working your leg muscles. Many people in the US have health issues because they do not exercise enough. The Physical Activity and Public Health journal mentions that less than 49.1% of U.S. adults met the CDC physical activity recommendation. Hiking trails are a fun and good way to exercise. Even in your free time, you should be active. Sitting around makes you lazier and you are less likely to get up and do something else later. Being active can even include going on vacations and other things. However, we eat a lot when we are out, so it’s important that we exercise on vacation as well. In a research article published at Claremont University, we see that the Appalachian Trail is a good example of a National Park that we can hike on. Many people want good scenery when exercising, and this park is perfect.

Now, does this make you want to hike? If so, get ready to hear the crunch of leaves beneath your feet. Hiking is not as hard as you may think, and it is even better if you pair up with someone. That way, both of you can experience the beautiful world underneath!


For further reading: 

  • Bosche, Lucy. “Woman Into The Wild: Female Thru-Hikers and Pilgrimage on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails” Scripps Senior Thesis, Page 203., doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.4.e7720
  • Kastenholz, Elisabeth and Aurea Rodrigues. “Discussing the Potential Benefits of Hiking Tourism in Portugal, Anatolia.” 18:1, Pages 5-12., doi.org/10.1080/13032917.2007.9687033 
  • Haskell, William. “Physical activity and public health: Updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association.” Faculty Publications, Pages 1423-1434., doing.org/10.1249/mss.0b013e3180616b27

 

 

Young Eyes Among Nature

Have you ever been too stressed from school? Ever wanted to get some fresh air before exams? If you answered yes to any of these questions, getting outside may be the perfect thing for you!

Most of us tend to rely on television or other forms of social media to relieve stress because not only is it familiar to us but it is also easy to access for us to access them from the comfort of our dorm rooms. When we want to take a study break, our first instinct these days is to listen to music or watch Netflix. But just think about how refreshed your mind could become if you simply sat outside instead, listening to the birds chirping and breathing in the fresh air!

Being in nature is beneficial for everyone, but it is especially good for college students. We might not appreciate the effects of nature at first, but after being outdoors for just a little bit, we can begin to experience that it is very therapeutic. An overwhelming amount of research has shown that nature plays a big role in destressing college students. According to psychologists, a few of the benefits of spending time in nature include stress relief, reduced mental fatigue, and better mood overall.

The thing to note is that enjoying nature does not mean you have to go out and engage in strenuous activities. You do not need to be in the mountains or a fancy lakeside resort to be able to enjoy nature. Simply doing yoga or sitting in an outdoor environment can help clear your mind. Many experiments with college students have shown that time in nature enhances students’ mood. A recent study examined what happens to young minds by comparing a group of college students who took a walk through an arboretum with another group which walked through a downtown area. The researchers found that students who walked through the arboretum had a significantly more positive mood than those who walked downtown (Euegen 2018).

 

Having green spaces on college campuses can hence, make a huge difference for the well-being of students. A study of 280 Japanese male college students found that students showed fewer depressive symptoms when they were in a forest environment rather than in the city (Seitz et al. 2014). Another study showed that when students had a view of nature, either directly or through a window, they were less likely to feel tired. Even looking at pictures of nature were shown to make students feel more energetic (Felsten 2009).

For college students, taking a study break is very important, and scientists recommend that it is done by spending time in nature instead of sitting at a laptop. Because of this, the locations of students’ dorms greatly affect their health. For instance, one study found that students who lived in dorms surrounded by streets and buildings showed more of a negative mood than those who could see greenery from their dorm room windows (Tennessen 2004). Researchers who conducted a separate study on 72 undergraduate students also found that those who could see views of nature from where they lived performed much better on attention tasks than those who did not have window views of nature.

When I was younger, I was one of those kids who did not like to go outside for fun. I would always want to play games on the computer or watch my favorite TV shows. But when I was in high school, my parents took me on my first ever adventurous family trip to The Great Smoky Mountains. Ever since that trip, my view on nature has completely changed. While we were in Tennessee, we did a lot of hiking, rock climbing, and river rafting. We took an amazing guided tour and the guide gave us a lot of information about insects, and nature in general. After the hikes, I realized that nature has a lot to offer, it was just I who did not appreciate it. During the remainder of our stay at The Great Smoky Mountains, I continued to explore the outdoors and wildlife, and I felt extremely at peace. I also noticed a few things about my health after spending more time in nature: being in the calm, serene environment made me feel relaxed and my overall mood was better than usual as well.

Waterfall at The Great Smokey Mountains in Gatlinburg, TN
Waterfall at The Great Smokey Mountains in Gatlinburg, TN © Kajal Patel 2018

Now that I am in college, I think back to the times when I used to go on walks with my mom. Those evening time walks on school nights were the best because I got to relieve all my stress in the best way possible. We don’t really think about the importance of nature when we’re younger, but it all makes a lot more sense now. Nothing is better than smelling the flowers and fresh air in your own neighborhood. So, don’t be like young me; turn off your TV, just #GetOutside!


For further reading:

  • Felsten, Gary. “Where to Take a Study Break on the College Campus: An Attention Restoration Theory Perspective.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 29, no. 1, 2009, pp. 160–167., doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.11.006.
  • Fuegen, Kathleen, and Kimberly H. Breitenbecher. “Walking and Being Outdoors in Nature Increase Positive Affect and Energy.” Ecopsychology, vol. 10, no. 1, 2018, pp. 14–25., doi:10.1089/eco.2017.0036.
  • Seitz, Christopher M., et al. “Identifying and Improving Green Spaces on a College Campus: A Photovoice Study.” Ecopsychology, vol. 6, no. 2, 2014, pp. 98–108., doi:10.1089/eco.2013.0103.
  • Tennessen, Carolyn M., and Bernadine Cimprich. “Views to Nature: Effects on Attention.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 15, no. 1, 1995, pp. 77–85., doi:10.1016/0272-4944(95)90016-0.