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Can Nature Really Heal? Your Guide to Ecotherapy and Nature Prescriptions

Updated: May 14

My youngest is a delightfully curious kid who struggles with attention challenges and experiences symptoms most profoundly while in school.

I’ll bet there’s more than one parent out there who can relate.

Despite being a very capable kid, my heart sinks when she tells me she’d rather be at Four Corners Algonquin or at camp in Algonquin Park, where the thrill of real life curiosity, experimentation, and daydreaming drive her learning. Book learning is the closest thing to misery she has ever experienced. Together we do a double dip into that abyss because I feel powerless to help.

Sorry sweetheart, I know school hurts, but I don’t know how to do summer all year round.

To make matters worse, I loved book learning, so my relationship with ADHD is always new.

Imagine my surprise when her spec ed teacher asked me one day if they could go for a weekly walk as a reward for getting her work done. (Are you kidding me? YES!!!) After a couple of weeks, it was like I had a new kid.

Reconnecting with Nature

Science has known for a long time that our bodies and brains just aren’t meant to sit at a desk for as long as we do these days - that doing so is actively making us unwell.

At the time of confederation, Canada was mostly a rural and agrarian economy. We were closer to the land and personally used it to produce whatever we consumed. We lived by the rise and fall of the sun. Today, that’s reversed - we are now an urban civilization. For most of us, our time is controlled, manipulated, and far more detached from nature than it has ever been. If my house is any measure, we have more desk time now even than before the pandemic. It’s an environment and lifestyle that often disables the humans who occupy it.

Now more than ever, so many of us are craving time in nature and looking for ways to reconnect.

Nature as Medicine

Spending time in nature is about more than removing sickness though. It’s also about taking positive action toward good mental and physical health. Connecting nature with health is part of an emerging forest medicine and ecotherapy movement taking hold across North America.

While Dr. Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Nature Deficit Disorder, helped pave the way for this wider conversation, I feel like we’re actually quite late to the game. North American Indigenous peoples have always had an integrative relationship, where nature and medicine are symbiotic. Nature is medicine. Similarly, the practice of “shinrin yoku” or forest bathing has long been accepted for its positive health effects in Japanese culture.

Nature Prescriptions: Officially Recommending Nature for Healing

However, after hitting the Global Wellness Summit’s top 8 list of health and wellbeing interventions in 2019, nature ‘prescriptions’ became a real thing here in our own backyard. A growing number of doctors will now write out a prescription for how much time a patient should spend outdoors, and even offer suggestions for where to go. Evidence suggests that the formality of a prescription increases the likelihood that patients will follow through with positive behaviour change.

The perfect piece of nature to prescribe is easily accessible: safe, nearby and free.

Government policy is backing up this advice with tangible support to make that advice easier to give and to follow. For example, Washington State recently enacted a task force to develop a state-wide park prescription pilot program. In November 2020, BC Parks Foundation launched PaRx, Canada’s first National nature prescription program.

How Does the Ontario PaRx Program Work?

In 2022, the PaRx program was deployed here in Ontario.

PaRx offers doctors free Ontario Parks day passes to hand out to patients who might not otherwise be able to afford the entry fee. Ontario Parks also has a pilot program with the public library to allow patrons to borrow a day pass.

The program has received support from the Ontario College of Family Physicians, Nurse Practitioners’ Association of Ontario and Association of Family Health Teams of Ontario.

According to the PaRx website, “Any licensed health-care professional can prescribe PaRx. They will receive a nature prescription file customized with a unique provider code and instructions for how to prescribe and log prescriptions. Featuring practical, evidence-based online resources like quick prescribing tips and printable fact sheets, as well as an achievable green-time target of ‘2 hours per week, 20+ minutes each time.’ PaRx aims to make nature prescriptions easy and effective for both prescribers and patients.”

You can learn more about the Ontario PaRx program here: PaRx Launches in Ontario

EcoTherapy: Nature Based Approaches to Healing

Ecotherapy refers to the many nature-based approaches to healing. Some examples include:

Nature MeditationForest BathingExercise in NatureDark Nature + StargazingNature Arts and CraftsCommunity Gardening

Developing a ‘nature habit’ is good for all kinds of medical conditions, including ADHD. I’m told that a twenty minute walk has the same benefits on concentration as a dose of stimulant medication. It’s also described as good for the planet. People who feel connected to nature are more likely to engage in activities to protect it.

It’s genius level thinking, really.

While those of us who experience or care for people with attention issues continuously learn to cope in environments that just weren’t designed for neurodivergent individuals, I also take heart in knowing that my daughter - and her amazing teachers - already intuitively understand at least part of the solution.

Summer weather and routines only happen for a few weeks out of the year, but we can choose to live by an “outdoor-is-better” ethic each and every day, and there are a growing number of supports to make that choice easier.

Making Nature More Accessible

Here at Four Corners Algonquin, our mission is to remove as many barriers as possible to help as many people as possible reconnect with the great outdoors. Whether it’s a tight budget, lack of equipment, minimal to zero camping experience, accessibility concerns or apprehension about camping, we provide options for everyone.

We invite you to take advantage of and share with your family and friends, resources that help reconnect as many people as possible with nature. Here are some resources to get you started, and we’d love to hear from you if you think we can add more to our list!

Promoting Accessible Tourism for All:

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