A young boy at Mott’s Children’s Hospital high-fives a special guest visitor from the Detroit Zoo in the Family Center
It’s early March; the snow’s just melted and the promise of spring hangs in the air. In the courtyard outside Mott’s Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Shannan Shaw’s two-year-old daughter, Maddie, an inpatient awaiting a heart transplant, lies in the grass and naps in the sunshine. “We got to enjoy something that, on the surface, had nothing to do with medicine or her illness. It definitely had an affect on us, not that we necessarily saw it at the time,” says Shaw, almost eight years later. Though muted by strokes, Maddie never hid her affinity for nature. “She would just love it, you could see it. She was so excited about interacting with the squirrels.”
Shaw’s daughter, who has since passed, was neither the first nor last patient to reap the health benefits of nature. Now more than ever, nature is being incorporated into various institutions to promote mental, physical, and emotional health; even prisons in Washington have started initiatives through the Sustainability in Prisons Project to bring nature to inmates. Peer-reviewed studies conducted by Groeneweggen et al. and Nebbe in 2006 found that contact with nature can reduce anger and fulfill basic needs like trust, self-worth, and nurture, and in 2000, Armstrong found that simply gardening can reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, reduce cholesterol levels, and improve the health of diabetics. Despite growing research, the EPA estimates that most Americans spend as much as 90% of time indoors.
“I think the separation from nature is traumatic, and we normalize that trauma in our culture,” says Jim Crowfoot, retired Dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources. “It’s a huge distortion to deny that part of our evolutionary history and our evolutionary present.”
For people who have suffered abuse, illness, or addiction, nature may be a solution. “I am convinced that deep connection with nature is a potentially positive resource for all human beings,” says Crowfoot. But does it take more than a walk in the park to ‘connect’ with nature?
Scientists don’t think so. A study by University of Michigan researchers Marc Berman, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan found that participants improved their directed attention – used when a task requires deliberate focus – after they took a walk in the University of Michigan’s Nichol’s Arboretum versus those who walked in urban settings; even looking at pictures of nature improved directed attention more than cityscape images. They concluded that the installation of a waterfall, nature mural, or even potted plant can improve people’s cognitive functioning.
This study is only the tip of an iceberg of research on the various health benefits of nature. Faber-Taylor and Kuo found in 2009 that outdoor, green play settings reduce symptoms of ADHD in children, and research by Li et al. in 2007 on Japanese forest bathing found that nature may have profound impacts on lung capacity, white blood cell counts, and immune system proficiency.
Mott’s Children’s Hospital is just one of many hospitals to take this research to heart. Julie Piazza is head of its Family Center, which organizes community and nature-based activities for patients. “Distraction can reduce pain by 50%,” says Piazza from her office as Detroit Zoo employees give free stuffed animals to passing patients; children with IV bags, wheelchairs, and bandages continuously pass her door with new bears and giraffes in tow.
“Seeing nature scenes can help someone feel more comfortable, more relaxed. The concept of place-making and knowing where you are – especially in relation to nature – is comforting,” says Piazza.
From the Michigan fossils on the lobby floor to the Huron River mural that takes patients on an underwater journey as they head into surgery, Piazza has worked to expedite the healing process. Even the architecture of the building promotes a relationship with nature; every room has its own periscope looking over the arboretum.
Wild About Nature, a new program at Mott’s Family Center that began in early 2015, sends patients and families on volunteer-guided nature walks through the nearby arboretum. “It just seems to give them an escape, a break, from what they’re worried about. Over the course of the program, they become more relaxed and more engaged in what we’re doing,” says Kirsten Edwards, the graduate student heading the program this year. Families see the river, make fairy doors, and identify different animals and plants – most importantly, they get a meditative breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately, not every patient has the ability to step outside; for some, nature has to come to them. Jared Wadley, president of Therapaws of Michigan, is one of 14,000 nationwide members of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs – men and women who bring their pets to schools, hospitals, and retirement homes.
“I’ve heard from parents that their child’s grades have improved because they know they’ll get a future therapy dog visit,” says Wadley. One boy in the U-M Cardiovascular Center told Wadley, “When I grow up, I want to be just like you, and I want a dog just like Bella.”
Piazza worked personally to get the dogs access to the surgery floor. “One of the things we were able to demonstrate was the reduced anxiety and increased comfort when an animal came to the bedside,” said Piazza.
The hospital doesn’t want to stop there. According to Piazza, Mott’s is working on several upcoming projects to expand its nature murals, bring in nature-themed community art, and possibly install an indoor butterfly garden. She hopes to bring nature to the adult hospital as well.
“There’s just a bazillion butterflies out there,” says Shaw of the Mott’s courtyard this past November, where there now stands a small cottage in honor of her deceased eldest daughter. Shaw continues to support Mott’s, now bringing her nine-year-old twins to the hospital, one of whom recently needed a blood draw. “She was so mesmerized by the butterflies, and so thoroughly enjoyed it, that it completely balanced out a stressful experience. It’s strange because my twins have good associations with the hospital, which you wouldn’t expect a child to have.”
For more information on the healing benefits of nature, click here.