In Henry David Thoreau’s seminal memoir “Walden,” he writes that “we need the tonic of wilderness.” Although millions of students have been assigned to read these very words, few have gotten the chance to see this wisdom proven during their academic careers. Even in eastern Massachusetts, where the Walden woods are just a short drive away, the tonic of wilderness is seriously lacking in our educational institutions.
In Thoreau’s time, these words were mere conjecture, however, modern psychology has provided them with a new level of validity, especially within the context of education. If public high schools could develop a way to incorporate the benefits of the great outdoors into their agendas, the benefits could be unparalleled.
Ten years ago, a study published in “Psychological Science” found that subjects’ results on memory and attention tests improved greatly after engaging in a walk through a park, as opposed to a walk in an urban area. Even when subjects were simply exposed to photographs of the natural world, their results significantly surpassed those of their counterparts, who instead viewed images of more developed environments.
Additionally, just last September, NBC News reported on a 2010 study from “Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine,” which found that walking through a forest notably decreased participants’ blood pressure and cortisol levels, the latter of which being the hormone most directly tied to stress. In 2015, Stanford led studies even found quantifiable evidence that nature walks could decrease risk of depression and alleviate the effects of anxiety.
It is universally recognized that we are in the midsts of an epidemic of such mental disorders among teenagers. Considering this trend, along with the dangerous and debilitating nature of these conditions, I believe that any and all known strategies should be employed against these dangers, especially those as simple and noninvasive as some time out in the sun.
For most American students, these results should not be hard to believe. In many high schools, chairs and desks are hard and frigid. The air is stagnant. The lights are as pale and lifeless as the students who sit under them spending hours upon hours staring placidly at a series of illuminated screens. It’s almost as if the designers of these facilities had decided to break the spirits of the children early on, as if to prepare them for the monotonous existence of a traditional office drone. This apparent lack of natural stimuli is conducive to an environment where it’s all too easy to drift off into pointless thought, forget entire class periods within hours, or find oneself in a despondent or anxious mind state.
Since these publications, some of America’s most successful and productive companies have put these studies into practice. Just last year, Apple opened its new “Apple Park” corporate campus, which includes two miles of woodland running and walking paths, an orchard, a meadow, and a pond, according to The Boston Globe. If these institutions can recognize the potential advantages of fresh air and sunshine, why can’t our schools?
As a high school student, I find that personal experience mirrors these conclusions as well. In my wellness class this year, I was granted the opportunity to abandon the classic gymnasium setting in favor of short bike rides through the forest trails just across the street from our high school. Each time, I returned alert and energized, ready to take on the school day with a renewed sense of motivation.
The research indicates that if we could incorporate such experiences into the school day, even if only once or twice a week, there would be noticeable improvements in attentiveness and information retention, as well as decreased rates of anxiety and depression. These are some of the most pervasive issues students and educators alike must face on a daily basis, and any methods of combating them should at least be seriously considered by those with the power to implement them. Whether it be by offering wellness electives in outdoor physical activities such as hiking and mountain biking, organizing weekly excursions into nearby woodlands, or even taking normal classes out onto the grass for a change, something can be done to bring the tonic of wilderness into our classrooms.