Every Monday morning, my 3-year-old daughter Grace
and I head to the North Park Village Nature Center on Chicago's
northwest side to take a walk.
We started these weekly trips last April. We kept them up
through the hottest days of summer, when the cicadas buzzed and the
air felt like soup. We walk if it rains, and we'll walk in the
snow. We've seen a mother goose build her nest and hatch her
goslings. We've watched, week to week, as tadpoles sprouted their
frog legs. Grace throws twigs into the lily pond and I point out
herons and deer, yellow finches and woodpeckers, goldenrod and wild
I started making these trips because I was tired of
watching "Sleeping Beauty" for the 123rd time on my morning off and
wanted some fresh air. But I've recently learned that we're getting
more than a break from TV. In Japan, visiting forests for their
therapeutic effect is a popular activity known as "Shinrin-yoku" or
Japanese studies confirm that visiting parks and forests raises
levels of white blood cells while lowering pulse rate, blood
pressure and concentrations of cortisol, a stress hormone. One 2007
study through the Nippon Medical School in Toyko found that
subjects who walked in the forest had higher levels of "natural
killer" cells, a component of the immune system that fights
Stress reduction is one factor. Another factor may be
inhaling air containing phytoncides, chemicals emitted by plants
that protect them from rotting and insects and also appear to help
"It speaks to how stressful our society is and how
stressful our human existence has become," says Dr. Aaron
Michelfelder, an associate professor of family medicine at Loyola
University Hospital Stritch School of Medicine. "When we get to
nature, our health improves."
Japanese research also has found that hostility and
depression decrease after trips to the forest, and the sense of
"liveliness" goes up, according to Dr. Judy Fulop, naturopathic
practitioner for the Northwestern Memorial Center for Integrative
Medicine and Wellness. The higher the stress level of the person
going into the forest, the greater the healing effect, Fulop
She says a walk in the woods at least once a week is a
good goal-the Nippon research found that even seven days later,
natural killer cell levels stayed high.
"I experience the difference when I don't do it," says
Fulop, who takes her dog on forest walks. "When I don't do it, I
feel more lethargic and more tired."
Michelfelder says that forest bathing is particularly good
for families with children, to give them time to both reduce stress
and to be together.
"Kids build up all this tension and energy from just
sitting there all day long," says Michelfelder.
He says parents in his family medicine practice are often
upset because by the time they get home from work and want to spend
time with their kids, the kids are bouncing off the walls and can't
focus. Getting out in nature as a family improves kids' focus and
attention "because they'll have a natural outlet for their energy,"
It also helps, Michelfelder says, for children to touch
real things, like trees and mud and water, rather than living
perpetually in the virtual environments of computers and
"I think kids are overstimulated visually and
electromagnetically and understimulated with their other senses,"
Michelfelder says. "I worry about the sense of smell, the sense of
touch, the sense of knowing where your body is at all
How can overstressed parents find time to go to the local
forest preserve, or even a park? Fulop points out that people who
are busy especially need nature breaks and need to find the time.
"I think it's much easier to do the tasks I want to do when I come
back from a refreshing walk," says Fulop. "Actually taking a break
brings you back to freshness, so you can think better."
It's also educational. Walking in the forest gives parents
a chance to talk to their children about change and how it can be
good, Fulop says.
A walk in the forest also is a great way to show how complicated
the world is. I see this in my walks with Grace. In her picture
book, there is only one kind of spider-smiling, with curly
eyelashes and a fat, black body. But in the forest, she can see
dozens of varieties-fuzzy Jumping Spiders; daddy-longlegs scuttling
over fallen branches; and yellow-spotted garden spiders on webs
sparkling with dew.
Even the act of dropping a pebble in water is complex,
because you don't see just one set of ripples, as you would in a
computer simulation or a book. Dropping a stone causes droplets of
water to splash all around, creating many sets of ripples,
spreading into each other. It's a good image for a child to keep in
mind-maybe it will help her remember that a single action can have
more than one effect.
Michelfelder says there's no reason to stop forest visits
now that winter's here.
"There's nothing more peaceful than the Morton Arboretum
when there's snow on the ground," Michelfelder says. The last time
he was there, he saw two coyotes, which in the summer might have
been hidden by foliage or scared away by summer crowds. "There's
something all four seasons have to offer outside," says
So Grace and I will keep taking our forest baths, even in
January, even if we have to cut our walk to just 15 minutes, when
the weather's too cold. We wouldn't want to miss a coyote. We need
to see how a heavy fall of snow will cover the cattails and the
prairie grasses, not as we imagine it might be or how an artist
paints it in a book, but the way it truly is.
Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago mom and freelance
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