Why are gardens so good for your mental health?

It's all about nature... plants are good for us

Being outdoors within an environment that is rich in greenery is known to be therapeutic. Indeed, the Japanese have an expression 'shinrin-yoku' which we can translate as 'forest bathing'. It doesn't need to be taken literally. The simple act of being immersed in any sort of living greenery is highly beneficial, not just trees. Studies have revealed many different benefits of natural landscapes to human health, whether they be gardens, fields, woods or even just looking at a green and natural view. 

Is it just coincidence that the picture of a simple outdoor dining table and chairs brings a sense of calm and peace?

So, what can these green spaces do for us? Firstly, reduction in stress has been well documented during scientific studies. Being outdoors within a garden-type setting reduces levels of cortisol, a chemical manufactured by the body in response to stress. Just sitting or relaxing in a garden can produce this effect. Add to this the physical benefits of moving around whilst undertaking gardening activities, and the benefits multiply. 

How to promote good mood and lower anxiety

Being in an outdoor space with living plants has a significant positive effect on mood, anxiety and depression. Taking some sort of control over a garden gives people a feeling of empowerment. When many areas of our lives seem complicated, gardens bring us back down to earth and allow us to achieve what we need to do within that particular space. Nurturing plants generates a feel-good factor and arranging, tidying and improving a garden activates the creative parts of the brain. Creative activities provide excellent therapy for all ages.

Caring for plants and nurturing a garden is a creative process that is good for mental health and wellbeing

Environmental psychologist, Roger Ulrich, carried out a study back in 1984 that showed the benefits of having a view of plants and trees from hospital wards. Post-operative patients recovered more quickly from their operations. Their mood was enhanced and they required less pain relief. They were also reported to suffer from fewer surgical complications. What's more, the addition of gardens within hospitals provides huge benefits to staff who are able to use the spaces to draw breath, de-stress and avoid burn-out.

The biophilia hypothesis explains the connection between humans, nature and other forms of life. We all possess a natural tendency to connect with living creatures, including plants. Greek philosopher Aristotle recognised that people need to make friendships with other living things and that these provide benefits to both. It's all about happiness and the multiple benefits that feeling happy creates.

Outdoor toys are a great way to entice the kids into the garden, whatever the weather

Being outdoors means that we are exposed to natural light, sun, air and a multitude of sounds, sights and smells that are both soothing and stimulating. Once we tune into the wonders of nature, the effects seem to expand. Look at the vast expanse of sky, with clouds that vary from one moment to the next. The shadows that appear once sunlight bathes down on plants. Notice stems that quiver in the breeze. Feeling the wind and experiencing the scent of plants is something that rarely happens indoors. It all feeds the soul with positive vibes that translate into feelings of happiness.

How to get children to enjoy a garden

Whilst gardening is shown to be one of the preferred methods of activity for older adults, there are very few children who would choose to 'garden' in the horticultural sense. But outdoor fun, games and dining, however, is another matter. Kids need to be enticed away from their screens here in the 21st century and the garden is the perfect way to do it. It's so easy during summer to turn an outside space into a playground that would be impossible to recreate indoors. Just add sand and water, then watch what happens!

The appealing sight of a paddling pool creates happy thoughts

There can be no greater fun to be found than water in the garden. A paddling pool is wonderful for all ages on a hot day. Add some toys, a model boat and maybe blow some bubbles. If you are able to add in a water slide, your day will be filled with laughter. Even a simple garden hose has tremendous opportunities, particularly when attached to a sprinkler, through which children can skip and chase. 

The simple play ideas are generally the best!

It's all about shaping your children's fun. If they are young enough, they'll want to be where you are. So, getting kids out into the garden is simple if you start them off early. Get into the habit of dining outside whenever possible and showing your obvious enjoyment of the garden. Point out the bugs, the shapes and scents of the flowers. Set them off on a treasure hunt to find certain colours or items hidden among the beds, or hide a favourite toy so they can have the pleasure of finding it. 

Let children join in with real gardening

Allow children to participate in gardening, using real tools (with supervision) and they will gain tremendous satisfaction from being able to do things that grown-ups do. Watering plants is always popular and you can extend this activity by planting seeds and watering each day, watching them grow. Yes, your gardening jobs will take longer, but you are providing these children with tools to promote their good mental health and a feeling of wellbeing for years to come.

Outdoor dining for breakfast, lunch and dinner

An outdoor table and chairs is an essential part of the outdoor kit if you are serious about making the garden part of your everyday life, for some of the year, at least. Take five minutes, even on a busy day, to sip a coffee and take in the outdoor vibes. It will remind you that nature is there for you when you need it. 

Serve kiddies' lunches outdoors, where mess and crumbs can be cleaned up by the birds. Fire up the barbecue for fun-filled meals and remember to point out what you can see and hear during the meal. It's something you can practice in your everyday life. If, for example, you can hear road noise from your garden, focus on the birdsong instead. Before long, all you hear is the uplifting birdsong. You will be paving the way for habits that your children can take forward through to their adult life. Their garden can become a sanctuary for them in years to come.

Outdoor play ideas for the kids

There's no limit to the scope of play opportunities for the young and the not-so-young. 

Here's a check list of ideas to help promote joy in the garden all summer long:

  • Sandpit play with vehicles, dumper trucks and moulds of various shapes and sizes. Don't forget the buckets and spades!
  • Water in the garden is just the best. Paddling pools, water slides, garden hoses, watering cans and buckets will provide many hours of pleasure. 
  • Painting outdoors - save those messy moments for the garden where it's so easy to hose down afterwards.
  • Ride-on toys are great for a patio. Send your child on a journey to collect some shopping. Play food is always useful.
  • Bubbles - the bigger the better! We never grow out of loving bubbles and chasing them around the garden is great fun.
  • Bug hunting and identification. All you need is a magnifying glass, a container and a good book that will help you to name them. Take care not to damage the bugs though. 
  • Bird spotting and identification. A pair of binoculars will help. This is a great activity for a mindful walk with the kids.
  • Gardening. Children love to snip! With supervision they can use real secateurs and even shears. Get them deadheading perennial flowers and pruning back unruly shrubs. Create a compost heap where they can pile on the results of their efforts. 
  • Den-building. Who doesn't love a den? Build one using sticks, sheets, plywood - anything that will give them a hidden nook in which to crawl.
  • Tents! Have a camping adventure in the garden. Even erecting a tent is fun, the kids don't have to sleep in it!

There's fun to be found outdoors, all it takes is a little imagination. Garden play is hugely beneficial to children. Garden games result in happy people. But don't forget to look after yourself too. Practice your own version of shinrin-yoku so that your mental health and wellbeing can benefit.

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