In recent years it has become a well-known fact that getting outdoors is good for our mental and physical wellbeing. It’s even better when we actively engage with green and blue spaces through activities and practical tasks. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, service providers are putting more emphasis on the importance of green space in urban environments as the impact of proximity to green and blue spaces is realised. In Milton Keynes, The Parks Trust is a key service provider which offers a wide range of activities suited to people with different needs and interests. An array of the activities available is listed on the website, and self-guided alternatives are available for those who want to explore independently.
How can the outdoors help our wellbeing?
Historically in the UK, since at least the 1840s, urban green spaces have been championed for the public – a testament to early awareness of their benefits to engage with the natural world, with key provision they are free to access for all. Even park designs have evolved, from open spaces imitating countryside, to including features such as miniature woodlands, floral beds or ornamental lakes. Many of Milton Keynes’s parks have designed landscapes, such as Campbell Park in the city centre, which has recently been awarded Grade II Listed status by Historic England.
A bird’s eye view of Campbell Park, Central Milton Keynes
Green space ecosystems provide many services, from the ecological (nutrient and water cycles), to the economic (resources such as wood and grazing) and from the aesthetic to health (air purification, community space and mental wellbeing). Unsurprisingly some of these benefits show strong association in reducing overall mortality (e.g. Rojas-Rueda et al., 2019).
In recent times, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, use of urban green spaces has soared as has appreciation for their multipurpose function: they are no longer only places for engaging with nature (appreciating sites, views and fresh air) but also as a community space (e.g. outdoor gyms, community gardens, work meetings, religious services, picnics).
Engaging with nature especially in green spaces is a long-known way to foster better health – for everyone – from the intergenerational appreciation of grandparents walking their grandchildren, to carers taking care of their loved ones. The Parks Trust and The Open University have already produced several OpenLearn articles about Walking the Parks, walking outdoors and staying mindful, the benefits of walking and talking, impact of walking and socialising through the Five Ways Café, and another article about why and how walking outdoors is beneficial in preventing the fast decline associated with ageing and thereby boosting our brain functions and / or memory. These can be accessed either via OpenLearn or The OU & The Parks trust YouTube Channel.
We have also seen an increased focus on carers, and their health and wellbeing, which is essential when supporting and taking care of their loved ones. For many people caregiving can be a beneficial and rewarding role. However, there are many aspects of caring for someone with additional physical or psychological needs that can be stressful, and it is well established that carers sometimes do not prioritise their own physical and emotional needs.
A lot is known about the benefits of exercising on our mood, mental and physical health and wellbeing. However, there has been less research on how healing it is to spend time outdoors using green and blue spaces. One of the key ways of maintaining our wellbeing is having the opportunity to leave the house and just spend time outdoors. The exercise could be strenuous but it doesn’t need to be in order to gain the desirable protective effect on our health and wellbeing. More about how spending time outdoors can enhance our mental health and wellbeing can be seen in our article on green and blue spaces. Here we talk about how beneficial it can be simply being in the presence of nature.
It is also worth noting that not all benefits are always conscious. As conscious as it is to go for a walk and actively engage with nature, there are subconscious engagements too – for example, the sounds and smells associated with natural spaces. Hedblom et al. (2019) have demonstrated how scents in green spaces can help reduce stress and thereby improve health, while Uebel et al. (2021) and Buxton et al. (2021) recognise that more natural soundscapes are beneficial for emotional and restorative purposes. Feeling the natural environment such as when stepping on the textures of the ground have also been associated with various benefits.
How to engage with the outdoor environment
Engaging with nature could also be both casual (independent, or group outings, e.g. dog-walking) or organised as social regular events (e.g. monthly café meetings). They could also be just for the sake of appreciating nature itself or associated with other activities (e.g. park run, learning outdoor skills) engaging groups of people. In all cases a significant and purposeful engagement with nature would be present. Here are three examples.
1. The Parks Trust in Milton Keynes is a great example of an organisation that is providing a wide variety of opportunities for people to engage with nature. On the Trust’s website and social media presence there is a wealth of outdoor learning resources for anyone to download and use for free out in Milton Keynes’s green spaces. Additionally, there is also a listing of other associated events and activities hosted across the parks on the What’s On pages. Whether you live in Milton Keynes or not, the website will provide inspiration for engaging with your environment.
2. If you prefer to engage with nature on your own, Dr Yoseph Araya, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Sciences, recommends an approach that also helps you actively learn using citizen science platforms such as iSpot (www.ispotnature.org). iSpot keeps a store of photographic records of animals and plants by location and even helps visitors learn the names of their observations. This sharing of observations has further benefits as the records are also used for teaching as well as to help scientists understand any changes in the environment.
3. Finally, it is increasingly prevalent that a number of learned societies are suggesting activities that cater for various specialist groups. For example, dementia related nature engagement packs can be obtained from Alzheimer’s society or Wildlife and Countryside Link. For engaging parents and children, you may seek EarthWatch’s Forest schools programme.
In conclusion, whether it’s as part of a citizen science project, on a guided community walk or a park visit you’re making independently, go boldly and enjoy the great outdoors!
- A podcast discussion of engaging with the environment, featuring Yoseph Araya, Ellie Broad Jitka Vseteckova is available here:
Practical steps to engage with nature:
Connecting with nature:
Engaging people with dementia to nature:
Dementia and art:
OU’s EEES project to encourage engagement in outdoors activities and careers “Walking the Walk: Co-producing approaches to diversifying participation” https://www.open.ac.uk/stem/environment-earth-ecosystem-sciences/about-us/equality-and-diversity