Interview: Florence Williams, Author of “The Nature Fix”

BY ON February 21, 2017

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams book cover

Are you like most moms – totally time-crunched, days spent rushing from school to home to work to afterschool activities and back again? You probably need a nature fix.

Florence Williams has just the thing to help you out. The 49-year-old science journalist and mother of two, suggests you immerse yourself in a forest. Or walk on a beach. Or sit in a park. Or crunch some leaves between your fingers. Or…

You get the idea. Whether you’re feeling depressed, stressed, angry or anxious, Florence says you should literally stop and smell the roses.

And research backs her up.

In her new book The Nature Fix, Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence pulls together the growing evidence that human happiness and well-being directly correlate to how much – or how little – time we spend outdoors. And the more, the better.

One of the first things I wanted to know was how Florence got so interested in nature as a fix for a lot of what ails us. So I read The Nature Fix, interviewed her on the phone, then met up with her in person at a D.C. event to launch her book.

It turns out, Florence created the foundation for the research she came to do on this book. She grew up in New York City. Her parents were divorced, and every summer her father took her on long wilderness vacations to Canada or out West. From an early age, she says, “I learned that forests and rivers and big landscapes provided fun and excitement, as well as peace and reflection.”

Florence eventually became a science and environment journalist, tackling such topics as the synthetic chemicals that build up in our breasts, which she wrote about here. She lived in Boulder, CO for 20 years, where it was easy to get out every day and take a walk or run in a beautiful mountainous landscape. When she relocated to noisy Washington, D.C. for her husband’s job, she noticed a definite change – for the worst – in her mood.

As she studied the relationship between her own sense of well-being and nature, she realized how important it was to make a conscious decision both to get outside more and to be aware of the natural world when you do get out.

Here’s Florence Williams’ advice for moms:

Florence Williams, author of the "Nature Fix"

Florence Williams, author of the “Nature Fix”

As a mom, what is the most important takeaway from your work on this book?

Middle-aged women are the unhappiest group of people in the country. One out of every 4 women in America takes an anti-depressant or medication for depression or anxiety. That’s more than for any other group. We’re taking care of our parents as well as our children. We want to be successful at work as well as at home. We’re busy! We don’t get much support when really, we need all the help we can get in maintaining our equanimity and grounding ourselves emotionally.

How does nature help?

Research shows that getting outside helps us sleep better and calms anxiety. It makes us kinder, more generous, compassionate people, which we need to raise kids.

That’s good for us moms. What about for our children?

Over 70% of mothers report that they played outside every day when they were kids. Yet, only 27% of their kids play outside every day! That’s a huge shift in one generation. We need to be aware of the toll being inside so much is taking on our kids’ social and emotional development.

When I was a kid, I used to roam around outside with my posse of friends. That doesn’t happen so much any more. Kids are over-scheduled, and there’s the sense that it’s not safe to be on our neighborhood streets.

But I’ve got to say, I’ve noticed that with my kids, as soon as they’re out of the house, they get along better than when they’re inside. They play more together, explore together.

Don’t they get outside when they’re at school?

In most public schools, there’s so much pressure to fill the day with curriculum to raise test scores that kids often don’t get a break.

Where I live in D.C., only 10% of schools are meeting recommended recess requirements, which is appalling, especially because kids today are facing epidemics of obesity and other chronic diseases that are helped by spending time outside.

How can we motivate our teenagers to put down their screens and go outside?

The trick there is to instill a tremendous love of nature when they’re younger and more impressionable. If you do that right, they will for the rest of their lives find comfort in nature. It won’t happen every day. They’ll get preoccupied with their devices. But if you give them this gift of a love of nature, it will pay dividends throughout their life.

What tricks do you use to get your teens to go out?

We have a dog! They have to help walk her. We have fun things in our backyard, like a trampoline that lures them and their friends outside. We go biking and skiing. Also, my kids go to a nature-based summer camp that they still love.

They’re allowed no electronic devices for 5 weeks. The first couple of days take adjusting to, and they’re definitely glad to get back to their phones and computers when camp is over. But during camp itself, they’re really happy.

How does nature help kids who have ADD or ADHD or suffer from anxiety?

We stick kids in classrooms and make them sit at desks, then wonder why they get bored and distracted. It’s not natural for a child to sit inside a room for 6 or 7 hours a day. Research shows that once we unleash kids into nature, their symptoms subside. They start paying attention to their surroundings. They learn experientially. Their concentration improves. Their nervous system calms down.

Studies also show that schools with the most green space and give kids the most time outside, those kids have better test scores. If you’re a parent concerned about academics, providing outdoor opportunities for your kid is another thing you can do.

In Finland, kids in elementary school get 15 minutes of recess every hour they’re at school. Teachers there understand that that’s the best way to get kids to pay attention.

What about moms who are worried their kids will get poison ivy, or tick bites?

If a kid has a severe allergy, of course, being outside when pollen is peaking is not good. When the pollen counts are low, like winter, there are many benefits to being outside.

Scandinavians say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

As far as ticks and poison ivy are concerned, teach your kids how to be sensible – wear long pants and socks when exploring the woods. Check for ticks when they come home, and teach them how to check themselves. Just like we teach kids to wash their hands so they don’t get a cold and to put sunblock on to prevent sunburn, we can teach them how they can enjoy nature safely.

Besides, we know that if we don’t let them out and they lead sedentary lives, they’ll face dire health risks.

Any parting advice?

Parents need to foster the connection to nature. In the same way as we are coming to value exercise as part of a healthy daily routine, we will also come to appreciate time in nature as a critical part of the mix that keeps us going.

It’s not a luxury; it’s essential to who we are as human beings and who we want to be.

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TOPICS: Environment, Motherhood