APR Update: Humans in Nature

Deborah B. Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison
/ CFLE Network, Winter 2019

See all articles from this issue


Routinely, as I take part in a professional development offering, I seek and indeed find some concept or insight that is relevant to the work of a Certified Family Life Educator and, thus, also relevant to the Academic Program Review endeavor. As a result of attending a session at the annual conference sponsored by my NCFR state affiliate 2 years ago or so, I became aware of Humans in Nature, a project of the University of Illinois Extension Family Life Team and the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the Urbana-Champaign campus. Supported by grant monies, Dr. Aaron Ebata and fellow project researchers seek to combine applied research with outreach efforts to connect individuals of all ages to the natural environment. They collect and share (a) stories from individuals and families about how and why they spend time in nature, (b) video clips of parents and experts, (c) research-based information, and (d) breaking news and commentary. The primary focus of the project is raising awareness of the benefits of nature to individual health and family relationships, and on inspiring people of all ages to #GetOutside. Because I have “liked” this organization’s Facebook page, I am a recipient of regular postings that serve to remind me of advantages of immersing myself in meaningful outdoor activity and, perhaps, inviting a family member or friend to join me.

Although another program in Canada by the same basic name has no connection to this Illinois project, it shares some similar goals. Headquartered in St. Jacobs, Ontario, Humans in Nature is a community of guides and instructors that offer individual and group nature-based activities and programs for purposes of enhancing well-being in multifaceted ways. Areas of specialty include nature, forest, and horticulture therapy, as well as yoga and meditation. This program also has both a website and Facebook presence, as well as a newsletter. According to a notice on the website, a gentle and mindful walk led by a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide into the Huron Natural Area by starlight has been planned for the evening of the 2018 winter solstice. Participants will partake in the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing.

Keniger, Gaston, Irvine, and Fuller (2013) conducted a meta-analysis of the results of 57 studies pertaining to the benefits to humans of interacting indirectly, incidentally, or intentionally with nature in indoor, urban, rural, wilderness, and other settings. The result was a list of numerous specific benefits falling into categories according to this taxonomy: psychological well-being, cognitive enhancements, physiological health/functioning, social interaction/cohesion/support, spiritual well-being, and tangible assets (e.g., income associated with food production). Izenstark and Ebata (2016, 2017) reported enhanced attentiveness and cohesion among family members as a result of interacting together in the natural environment. Of course, if we are to appreciate the full scope of the people–nature relationship, we must acknowledge that there are negative aspects to such interactivity. Humans can experience bodily harm due to a variety of possible environmental hazards. And human movement within nature settings often brings with it certain levels of “wear-and-tear” damage.

After some brainstorming, I have identified several CFLE Content Areas in which topics and concepts related to humans in nature could be incorporated. Perhaps some of you readers can identify other possibilities beyond these:

  • Families and Individuals in Societal Context—leisure and family relationships

  • Internal Dynamics of Families—theories explaining family dynamics; placement of parks and other natural areas within the family ecosystem; stress reduction and factors that contribute to healing; family routines and rituals involving nature

  • Human Growth and Development Across the Life Span—benefits and cautions of individual and family interactions with nature: physical, emotional, cognitive, social, moral, spiritual, and so on.

  • Interpersonal Relationships—nature as a setting for developing and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships

  • Family Resource Management—prioritizing interaction with nature; managing time and monetary assets associated with interacting with nature

  • Parenting Education and Guidance - Strategies to support children interfacing with nature; parenting programs that intentionally incorporate interactivity with nature

  • Family Law and Public Policy—public policies that impact individuals’ and families’ ability to access various kinds of nature settings; urban planning; management of natural resources; crime prevention strategies that include nature solutions; organizing and implementing town forums or Family Impact Seminars related to humans in nature

  • Family Life Education Methodology—design, delivery, and assessment/evaluation of FLE offerings that focus on a range of humans in nature concepts and activities

In my view, perhaps the best, most impactful way for students to grapple with topics, concepts, and issues related to humans in nature is in the context of service learning or an internship/practicum experience. Based on some local and national offerings of programs I am familiar with, here are some learning activities that could be arranged for undergraduate or graduate students as individuals or in groups, depending on what the circumstances can accommodate.

  • The Community Cancer Center in my town has a multifaceted program that puts horticulture therapy into action for the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual benefit of patients, as well as the family members, friends, and Center staff that support them. See https://cancercenter.org/patient-care-and-services/supportive-care-services/spiritual-support. Students enrolled in the community’s two universities and community colleges have worked with local Master Gardeners, Center Foundation volunteers, and even patients to design, create, and maintain “healing gardens,” including a butterfly garden, and a meditation labyrinth. They plan and carry out numerous educational and social activities that take place in the garden areas. In some cases, it is possible for a patient to receive treatment in full view of the gardens and sometimes even in a garden area. Students in your academic program or student organization could seek out similar opportunities in your community.

  • Based on a German model, the Children and Elder Forests (CEF) nonprofit organization in my community has paired with entities such as city park and recreation departments (of which there are two) and the Illinois State University (ISU) Horticulture Center to design, plant, and maintain nine groves of trees. The goal of CEF is to create as many groves as possible by having multigenerational teams sponsor trees. Each tree-sponsoring team typically consists of at least one child and one related elder, but there is no limit to how many people are on a team. In fact, the teams can be families, friends, or organizations (including university staff and students). Many people also sponsor trees in memory of a loved one. See https://ceforest.wixsite.com/ceforest. Over time, as a particular planted tree grows, team members report that they routinely return to the grove to walk about and enjoy some “forest bathing,” visit the tree they sponsored, and perhaps carry out a brief ritual while there. Students, whether as a participant in a course or a club, could sponsor trees, help maintain groves, plan activities for community members in the groves, or help to fundraise for purposes of securing various amenities such as benches to place in the groves. Students in your academic program or student organization could collaborate with others to institute similar opportunities in your community.

On a side note, I have twice served on the CEF Executive Board, purchased seven trees in various groves, and am a steward for the grove sponsored by CEF and the ISU Horticulture Center. See accompanying photo of that grove.

Beyond the possibility of students helping to initiate a similar children and elders forest project in your town as a part of volunteer work, service learning, or an internship/practicum experience and then, subsequently, planning meaningful nature-oriented activities for individuals and families that would take place in the grove, there are numerous other options like the ones that follow:

  • In my twin-city community, a 45-plus mile surfaced trail exists for residents to enjoy alone or with others for purposes of walking, hiking, running, jogging, and/or biking. First located on an abandon railway, the expansion of this linear park has been overseen by city park and recreation departments and a nonprofit organization. Much of the trail is tree-lined and passes by creeks and other natural areas. Local university and community college students have been involved with trail maintenance, as well as the planning and carrying out of educational and social activities for children and families. See https://www.normal.org/1121/Constitution-Trail. Students in your academic program or student organization could collaborate with others to institute similar opportunities in your community.

  • Your students could contribute stories, videos and other items to the University of Illinois Humans in Nature Project for posting on its website. In collaboration with faculty, they could start a similar project on your campus.

  • Students could undertake summer internships with Park Rx America (see https://parkrxamerica.org/about.php). The website of this nonprofit organization says its goal is to work closely “with managers of publicly-accessible land and water, as well as directly with healthcare providers and their respective organizations, to ‘make it easy’ to prescribe parks and other protected areas to their patients real-time in the clinical practice setting.” Perhaps there are participating parks in the vicinity of your campus and students could be involved in planning and delivering innovative programs for health-compromised individuals and their family members.

  • Students could complete an internship or practicum within the policy and education arm of the Children and Nature Network (see https://www.childrenandnature.org/act/policy-advocacy/). Headquartered in Minneapolis, this organization’s mission is to lead a global movement to increase equitable access to nature so that children, and natural areas, can thrive. To do this, it shares evidence-based resources with community leaders in hopes of helping to facilitate innovative initiatives and meaningful institutional and policy change.

  • Students could play a role, small or large, in encouraging businesses, government agencies, and educational institutions to make connecting children to nature a priority. They could educate policy makers and other leaders through a variety of means, including educational resources and materials, writing letters and policy briefs, and holding deliberative forums and Family Impact Seminars.

Soon after this column appears in print, I intend to start a thread of dialogue on the CFLE Group Discussion board about other applications within family-related academic courses for content and learning activities related to humans in nature. At that time, I hope you will join in sharing your ideas and insights. Group Discussion boards are perfect for such exchanges!



Children and Elder Forest. (n.d.). Welcome to Children and Elders Forests. Retrieved from https://ceforest.wixsite.com/ceforest

Community Cancer Center. (n.d.). Community Cancer Center: Spiritual support. Retrieved from https://cancercenter.org/patient-care-and-services/supportive-care-services/spiritual-support

Humans in Nature. (n.d.). Humans in Nature: Wellness services. Retrieved from http://www.humansinnature.ca/  

Humans in Nature Project. (n.d.). Humans in Nature: Connecting individuals and families to nature. Retrieved from https://publish.illinois.edu/humansinnature/

Izenstark, D., & Ebata, A. (2017). The effects of the natural environment on attention and family cohesion: An experimental study. Children Youth and Environments, 27, 93–109. doi:10.1111/jftr.12138

Izenstark, D., & Ebata, A. (2016). Theorizing family-based nature activities and family functioning: The integration of attention restoration theory with a family routines and rituals perspective. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 8, 137–153. doi:10.1111/jftr.12138

Keniger, L. E., Gaston, K. J., Irvine, K. N., & Fuller, R. A. (2013). What are the benefits of interacting in nature? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10(3), 913935. doi:10.3390/ijerph10030913

Parks Rx America. (n.d.). What is Parks Rx America? Retrieved from https://parkrxamerica.org/about.php

Town of Normal Parks and Rec. (n.d.). Welcome to Constitutional Trail. Retrieved from https://www.normal.org/1121/Constitution-Trail