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A tonic for the soul: Learning nature’s benefits through new University course

A new class helped students learn about the benefits of being outdoors on overall health

Each discussion topic relates to a different location that the class visits, some which included Ragged Mountain, Blue Ridge Tunnel, Glass Hollow Overlook, Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Preserve and Observatory Hill.
Each discussion topic relates to a different location that the class visits, some which included Ragged Mountain, Blue Ridge Tunnel, Glass Hollow Overlook, Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Preserve and Observatory Hill.

With fresh clean air, sunlight falling through leaves, the scent of trees, sound of wind rustling through the grass — being outside can be invigorating to our senses and clear our minds. However, finding a break to completely let go has been hard for many students, especially with the pandemic restrictions. Making time to go outside has been difficult for some, but it became significantly easier for University students in KINE 1070 “Engaging with Nature for Health and Wellbeing.”

“Engaging with Nature” — offered through the lifetime physical activity program — is a one-credit, pass-fail course, and it aims to give students the skills needed to optimize time outside and create regular healthy habits incorporating nature. The 18-person course met once a week for 2.5 hours, and they always try to meet in a new location fairly close to Grounds. The class started last fall, and many students who have taken it have had a positive experience, including fourth-year College student Eli Benn.

“This class has become a little reward for me since my Tuesdays and Thursdays are so busy,” Benn said. “As much as I enjoy being outside and exploring nature, I haven't previously been able to get much on my own at school, so I wanted to take this class in order to have a structured way to do just that.” 

The course syllabus includes discussion topics for each hike or excursion, including health benefits of being outside, different dimensions of wellness and the practice and intersection of mindfulness and well-being in nature. There are also conversations about the importance of green spaces in communities and about the history of national parks like the nearby Shenandoah National Park. 

Each discussion topic relates to a different location that the class visits, some which included Ragged Mountain, Blue Ridge Tunnel, Glass Hollow Overlook, Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Preserve and Observatory Hill. For example, the topic for the forest preserve is about how having national parks nearby can influence recreational choices and the community as a whole. 

The instructors of the course worked hard to engage with the community and bring their own skill sets to the course. 

Meredith Hayden, associate executive director at student health and wellness; Director of Medical Services Jessica Simmons; Jeff Jennings, staff psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services; and Chris Holstege, executive director of Student Health and Wellness, gave information on various topics including mental health, wilderness survival, and how to engage closely with nature

For students, this class has given a space not only to go on nature excursions, but also to learn about nature’s positive impact on health — both mental and physical. Literature from the class covers how being outside can lower stress hormone levels, heart rate and blood pressure. Engaging with nature can also inspire positive emotions like awe and wonder, giving one a sense of being part of something bigger than oneself. Research also indicates that this positive feeling of awe is associated with increased prosocial behavior, as collective concern is enhanced by feeling a sense of belonging. 

“We start each class with a nature poem,” Simmons said. “My favorite is Mary Oliver’s ‘The Summer Day.’ We also practice forest bathing a few times on each hike.” 

Forest bathing involves focusing on sensory details in one’s natural environment and being conscious of one’s surroundings. This has numerous benefits for health, including reducing stress hormone levels. 

Fourth-year College student Melly Anderson reflected on how this class helped her to be more mindful and incorporate the skills into her meditation practices.

“The course had a very strong influence on my practice of mindfulness and ability to meditate,” Anderson said. “This class combined with meditation outside of class is phenomenal.” 

Students also learn about how to optimize their time outdoors, examining options for getting into nature based on various goals, time constraints and available resources. Those who took the class are in general consensus that it has given them tips on hiking and mindfulness to get the most out of their time outside. 

“As much as I enjoy being outside and exploring nature, I haven't previously been able to get much on my own at school, so I wanted to take this class in order to have a structured way to do just that,” Benn said. 

Melly agreed that the course has enabled her to explore new natural destinations near her college town. 

“I enjoyed learning and walking through new paths of Charlottesville that I didn’t know existed before,” Melly said. “I hope to use the skills I have gained in this course in my future hiking trips.”

Overall, the course has given students an opportunity to learn more about how to get the most out of being in nature, since it has been such a crucial outlet of stress during the past year. There are also plans to hold the class this upcoming semester and to expand the program, as the staff has received a one-day national park pass from Shenandoah National Park. 

“Spending time in nature has documented positive impacts on both mental and physical health,” Simmons said. “For me, personally, spending time in nature is a tonic. It allows me to ground myself and to reset. I also feel like I am part of something bigger than myself.” 

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