Children play on trees in the Wissahickon Valley Park. (Photo courtesy of Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education)

Children play on trees in the Wissahickon Valley Park. (Photo courtesy of Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education)

by Anna Lehr Mueser

As August winds its way towards September, we all feel the slow departure of summer. In the early mornings, the air carries the faintest hint of coolness, a dry grassy smell mixes with the urban heat radiating from our sidewalks, here and there a premature leaf flutters from a tree. We hope for the hottest days to pass and we linger on the freedom of summer.

August, with its meadows a riot of color and biodiversity, its forests cool and dark with a thick canopy of leaves overhead, its ice creams and drives to the shore, is the perfect summer month. It is the quintessential summer month and it is the perfect month to spend outdoors.

And being outdoors in August is about more than enjoying the hum of cicadas and the drafts of cool air on a sunny day. It’s about seeing the natural world where we are, enjoying it now, today, tomorrow, every day. And it’s about your health. More and more studies show that being outdoors in nature has profound impacts on health and wellness, for adults and children alike.

And yet today, we have an incredible loss of time in and information about nature. The statistics can be staggering. Most Americans spend eight-and-a-half hours a day in front of screens. Most American children have less than 30 minutes of time playing outdoors each week. We’re even literally losing the words for the natural world as the Oxford Junior Dictionary opted to replace dozens of nature words like acorn and badger with newer words like upload and cut-and-paste.

At the same time, the current generation is expected to live shorter lives than their parents, in Philadelphia, one in four children and one in three adults are obese, and two-thirds are deficient in vitamin D (a deficiency that has been linked to cardiovascular, metabolic, and mood disorders), and access to nature is getting ever rarer.

But having that access to nature can mean an incredible difference. For patients in a hospital, merely seeing a tree, rather than a brick wall, out the window, is correlated with a faster recovery. Children surrounded by nature regularly are less likely to suffer from mood, anxiety and attention issues, and are more emotionally resilient. They are also less likely to be near-sighted.

Likewise, for adults, time in nature is correlated with lowered blood pressure and stress levels. Even a simple walk through a natural area can lower blood pressure, improve mood and improve immune system function. All of this is to say, it’s becoming more and more clear that we need nature for our health.

And yet we often get very little of it.

During last century the American population moved rapidly into cities, and today about 80 percent of our country lives in an urban environment. This means that while studies show we need nature for our health and wellness, fewer people live with easy access to it. So it’s time to think about where and how we find nature near where we live.

Nature is everywhere: in the city park, the arboretum, the nature center, the street trees, the cracks in the sidewalk where minute creatures and plants eke out their lives. So I invite you to look for the nature that is around you. Once you notice it, make sure to take the time to go for a walk. Look at the plants, listen to the sounds.

For a moment, imagine a meadow, imagine that perfect August scene: Insects hum loudly from the trees at the edge of this field, the air is hot and a little muggy, the meadow colorful and rich. Now go for a walk.

We need this time in nature – we need it for our minds and bodies. And really, August is the perfect bridge between the muggy summer heat and chilly fall. Before we rush into fall – a season unmatched for beauty and weather – take time to be in nature. It makes the difference.

Anna Lee Mueser is a staff member at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.