Why Nature is Good for Us

The Benefits of Chaparral Education – the research

Increasing public awareness of what healthy, shrub-covered landscapes look like (and what they are called) is one of the first steps necessary in gaining public support in developing a plan to help stem the loss and protect what is left. This is where public parks and volunteer naturalists in protected wild places play a critical role.

Once individuals are introduced to the chaparral as a viable, natural community, interest in learning about the various plants and animals that inhabit the community can grow. As knowledge and appreciation for one’s local, natural environment develops, it becomes incorporated into a person’s place attachment, or more commonly, a “sense of place.”


The concept of sense of place has multiple definitions depending upon who is applying it, but it generally involves not just the physical environment, but social features as well. A sense of place is an experience that combines both the physical setting and what we bring to it, how we interact with it (Steele 1981).

Was your first experience interacting with the chaparral a pleasant one? What memories do you associate with it? Do we find comfort when you are there? Who have you shared it with? A sense of place is extremely personal and therefore, does not exist independent of us. This is why nature education programs should place a major focus on creating enjoyable, engaging experiences that help us develop meaning for the chaparral as a location in addition to passing along content. This is what Dave Numer did for us at Devil’s Punchbowl.

Establishing a sense of place with the chaparral can form a basis for community cooperation and action (Manzo and Perkins 2006). This community involvement can then be mobilized to protect natural assets and the ecosystem services they provide, services that are necessary to maintaining the health and well-being of surrounding human communities.

This is what conservationist Baba Dioum (1968) was referring to in his speech to the General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources when he said,

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

Of all the ecosystem services, the enhancement of mental and physical health is the most directly related to chaparral education that will encourage people to spend more time in wild spaces. These benefits have been elucidated in a number of interesting studies (Suttie 2016).

  • Reduced stress: Stress and anxiety, as measured by drops in heart rate and blood pressure, can be reduced significantly by being in nature (Lee et al. 2014, Tyrvainen et al. 2014, Ulrich et al. 1991).
  • Less worrying. Participants who took a casual walk through nature versus an urban setting showed less compulsively focused attention on problems and their consequences which otherwise can lead to depression (Bratman et al. 2015, Bratman et al. 2015b).
  • Increased creativity. Spending time in the wild increases creativity and the ability to focus (Atchley et al. 2012, Berman et al. 2008, Aspinall et al. 2013)
  • Increased generosity. Experiencing the beauty of nature illicit positive emotions causing people to be more generous and thoughtful of others (Zhang et al. 2014, Piff, et al. 2015)
  • Feeling alive. Feelings of vigor, a sense of enthusiasm, and “aliveness” increase with being in nature, independent of physical and social activity (Ryan et al. 2010).
  • Immunity boosted. After walks in a forest, participants showed reduced concentrations of cortisol which corresponds with a higher value of natural killer cell activity, increased activity of immunological cells, and increased expression of anti-cancer proteins (Li et al. 2008).

In addition to empirical research, a number of writers and philosophers have added to the conversation by suggesting that nature can play a role in increasing confidence and self-respect. Abrams (2014) writes,

“Nature teaches you that there is nothing wrong with you. When you’re in nature, you don’t have to look at advertising that tries to convince you there’s something wrong with you, in order to sell a product. Nor do you have to look in mirrors. Instead, you’re either focused on the setting around you, or on what you are doing, like climbing, setting up a tent, or gardening.”

The contributions nature provides to social well-being, as well as economic, have also been emphasized at the Presidential level. A memorandum from the Executive Office of the President in 2015 provided “direction to agencies on incorporating ecosystem services into Federal planning and decision making” (Donovan et al. 2015).

As a final note in the discussion of ecosystem services; it is important to also recognize that the chaparral has intrinsic value. The chaparral’s existence is vital for providing habitat for habitat’s sake (i.e. for the plants and animals that live there). That value alone provides a powerful rationale for protecting the chaparral as an intact, ecologically vibrant ecosystem.

Although the positive attributes of experiencing nature have been receiving a significant amount of attention since the publication of Last Child in the Woods (Louv 2008), and more recently How to Raise a Wild Child (Sampson 2015), strong societal changes have been working against the effort to get people outside. According to several studies, the average American young person spend less than seven minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play, but more than seven to ten hours in front of some kind of electronic screen (Hofferth et al. 1999, Rideout et al. 2010, Thomas et al. 2004). It is reasonable to speculate that adults suffer from the same deficits.

“That outdoor time is 90% less than most of their parents had,” Scott Sampson (2016) said in a recent interview. “So in one generation, we’ve flipped this around.”

Such lack of activity lead the former US Surgeon General Richard Carmona (2004) to speculate that, “… we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have shorter life expectancy than their parents.”

In addition, lack of experience in nature, in the chaparral, will further alienate citizens from the natural environment. Such alienation will likely reduce the number of people who care enough about nature preserves, wild rivers, and national parks to fight for their continued protection.

Chaparral education is essential if we intend to address the significant societal change that is keeping people inside, negatively impacting both human and environmental health.

Halsey, R.W., V.W. Halsey, R. Gaudette. 2018. Connecting Californians with the Chaparral. In Valuing Chaparral, Economic, Socio-Economic, and Management Perspectives. Eds Underwood, E., H. Safford, N. Molinari, and J.E. Keeley. Springer International Publishing.


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