|By Maryann Whitman
Early Interaction With Nature Help
Kids Think and Cope Better? And if
You Don't Like Poison Ivy Now, Wait
Until You Hear What Happens When It
Grows in a "Greenhouse."
Karen Wells, an assistant professor
in Cornell's College of Human Ecology,
has published a number of papers over the
past few years that reflect on the beneficial
effects of “nature” on
In 2000, Wells conducted a study that found
that being close to nature helps boost
attention span. “When children’s
cognitive functioning was compared before
and after they moved from concrete surroundings
to housing that had more green spaces around,
profound differences emerged in their attention
capacities, even when the effects of the improved
housing were taken into account,” said
Wells. Other studies, she notes, also support
the theory that green spaces might help restore
children’s ability to focus
their attention, thereby bolstering their cognitive
by allowing neural inhibitory mechanisms to rest and
recover from use. “By bolstering children’s
attentional resources, green spaces may enable children
to think more clearly and cope more effectively with
life stress,” Wells said.
In 2003 she showed empirically
that nature in or around the home appears to
be a significant factor in protecting the psychological
well-being of children in rural areas. “Our
study finds that life’s stressful events appear
not to cause as much psychological distress in children
who live in high-nature conditions compared with
children who live in low-nature conditions. And the
protective impact of nearby nature is strongest for
the most vulnerable children – those experiencing
the highest levels of stressful life events.”
research published in 2005 expanded on this line
of reasoning: “Our study indicates that
participating in wild nature activities before
age 11 is a particularly potent pathway toward
shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors
in adulthood,” said
Wells. “When children become truly engaged
with the natural world at a young age, the experience
is likely to stay with them in a powerful way – shaping
their subsequent environmental path,” she
Interestingly, participating in Scouting
or other forms of environmental education programs
had no effect on adult attitudes toward the environment.
in nature-related activities that are mandatory
evidently does not have the same effects
as free play in nature, which doesn’t have
demands or distractions imposed by others,
and may be particularly critical in influencing
long-term environmentalism,” Wells
An Interesting (Maybe Itchy) Future?
as carbon “sinks,” storing
carbon when they break down carbon dioxide (CO2)
during photosynthesis. A carbon pool, such
as a well-managed, old growth forest, has more
carbon flowing into it than flowing out.
dioxide (CO2) emissions increase
the concentration of this gas in the
atmosphere. CO2 has
become the most common greenhouse gas. Major
sources of CO2 emissions include
the burning of fossil fuels for energy
and transportation, and the destruction
of forests. Numerous reports (World Meteorological
Organization, Laboratory for Applied Biotelemetry & Biotechnology
at Texas A&M)
have shown that human activity has contributed
to increased atmospheric CO2. Prior to
the start of the Industrial Revolution
(circa 1850), atmospheric CO2 concentrations
were about 280 parts per million by volume
(ppmv). Current levels are about 370 ppmv.
have wondered whether this carbon boost
might work as aerial fertilizer for plants.
The plant-world beneficiaries might surprise
Researchers from Duke University (North
Carolina), over a period of five years,
monitored the plants growing in a confined
area while exposed to levels of approximately
560 ppmv CO2 – a 50% increase
over current CO2 levels.
ivy vines, in particular thrived
in this environment, showing extra photosynthesis
and more efficient water use.
The chemical composition of urushiol,
the oil that poison ivy produces, became more
toxic. While the concentration produced by
the plants remained the same, much more of
the unsaturated form was produced. This is
the form that is more likely to produce painful
skin reactions in people.
Other studies have
suggested that vines may be big winners in
dioxide future. Experiments at Oak Ridge National
Laboratory in Tennessee showed that forest
honeysuckle vines increased their growth.
don’t spend much of their carbon harvest
on trunks or other supports, so the carbon
windfall can go directly into new leaves,
which collect yet more carbon and sunlight.
An increased abundance of vines, which can choke
out trees, could change forest dynamics.
more-toxic poison ivy is a serious concern,
says a researcher from Macquarie University in
Australia. It’s another factor to
add to his tally of the extra misery that climate
change might bring to people with allergies.
For example, certain pollen counts are likely
to go up, so allergy seasons could become more
serious events, he says
Maryann is Editor of the Wild Ones Journal, and comes to the position with an extensive background in environmental matters of all kinds.
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