… And here are three good reasons to get some fresh air this spring
by Alison Standish, COLUMNIST
8 March 2019
As you walk with the breeze on your face, you can feel energy radiating from every angle. There’s a symphony in the trees as the birds share their excitement, and you can almost smell the life surging from the green grass. Fast-forward just a few months, and the air is crisp, clear, and fresh. The trees have decided to deck themselves with colorful flecks that slowly drift to the ground and crunch under your feet. Some time passes, and you’re watching as tiny bundles of soft white fling themselves down from the sky to cover everything in a shimmery blanket. You know that just a couple months later everything will feel like it’s waking up. You’ll smell damp earth and brand-new flowers, while the sun makes a guest appearance that inspires the thunderous cheering of hundreds of birds. This is the kind of beauty that many people have forgotten about.
The marsh behind the back parking lot at East this past August. Photo by Alison Standish.
Many Americans are missing out on the benefits of the natural world. According to a study done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the average American spends 93% of their life indoors, with 87% of that time spent inside and the other 6% in cars and other vehicles. It’s hard to believe that we only spend 7% of our lives outside when the great outdoors is full of psychological and physical benefits. However, when looking at the ways in which we spend our time, this startling statistic seems more believable. From Kindergarten to 12th grade, we spend 13 years in school. That’s roughly 180 days a year, with about seven hours per day. That’s 1,260 hours per year, meaning that the average American high school senior has spent 16,380 hours at school. That’s 16,380 hours spent mostly indoors moving from classroom to classroom. It’s a staggering 15% of a high schooler’s lifetime, and it doesn’t even include the hours spent indoors at home. This is an issue that needs to stop, and the solution is plain and simple: we need to make a stronger effort to go outside during our free time as well as during school hours.
Do it for your school
A 2009 study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois showed that children diagnosed with ADHD began to display higher levels of focus after a 20-minute walk through a park. If spending just a tiny sliver of time outdoors can increase focus in small children with attention deficiency disorders, imagine what it can do for us as high school students. Up until my junior year, I was a homeschooled student. What that looked like on an average day was me trying to get a mountain of homework done with only my own motivation and drive to keep me accountable to deadlines and due dates. I found that oftentimes, focusing in an indoor environment proved to be difficult. But the second I went outside with my laptop, worksheets, and math problems, I found it easier to complete my work. Without the impediments of technology, noise, and the monotony of sitting at the same desk for hours at a time, it was much easier to zone in on the tasks at hand.
The average American spends 93% of their life indoors, with 87% of that time spent inside and the other 6% in cars and other vehicles. It’s hard to believe that we only spend 7% of our lives outside when the great outdoors is full of psychological and physical benefits.
According to the data below, 29% of 531 East students surveyed by the Howl reported that they only spend 10 minutes or less outside on a daily basis throughout the school year, while 25% reported that they spend less than 30 minutes outside on average. This percentage includes the time spent outside from August — roughly, when the school year starts — through May — when school ends. The results do not reflect how much time students spend outside during the summer.
POLL BASED ON A CROSS-SECTION OF EAST STUDENTS
More outdoor activities throughout the school day might inspire students to spend more time outside during their free time. It’s actually very possible for high-school students in public schools to get time outside during the school day. Here at Oswego East, there aren’t any rules against teachers taking their classes outside. According to Assistant Principal Margaret Darnell, all a teacher has to do before heading outside is let the office know where they are and notify all the members of their class. They aren’t allowed to prop open doors and they have to take timing and weather into consideration as well as making sure that their students have enough time to get to their next class without being late. Other than that, the outdoors is readily accessible to any class at Oswego East.
German teacher Anna Hog tries to take her students outside on a consistent basis. Even though her class doesn’t seem like it could be taught outside, she believes that what can be done outside should be done outside.
“Whatever you don’t need to have a desk for [can be done outside.] If we’re doing an activity here in class, we can do it outside as well. I don’t need the computer, I don’t need the screen,” Hog said. She added that she would like to see more teachers taking this approach to turn an “inside alleyway” into a “learning garden.”
Adventure Ed teacher Aaron Kimpton also likes to take his Adventure Ed class outside. He stated that a lot of the need for high-schoolers to go outdoors stems from the monotony of the school day and the need to break things up and occasionally do something different.
“[More outdoor involvement] would just promote the health and overall well-being of the student population as a whole….Being outside and promoting that lifestyle can also help kids be more focused in school so they’re outside, they get their energy out, they can refocus, and [they can] kind of have some fun,” Kimpton said.
Perhaps we simply need to start more conversations. Students: talk to your teachers about potentially holding class outside occasionally. Teachers: consider the academic and social benefits of time spent outdoors, and maybe try experimenting with outdoor class time. Oswego East contains a myriad of resources for us to use, including a courtyard area, a small marsh, an outdoor track, and lots of square footage of wide-open spaces. If we all make more of an effort to use our resources, we could soon become a happier and healthier student body.
Do it for your health
Immersing oneself in nature has been proven to decrease levels of anxiety and stress. Not too long ago in the Netherlands, a study was conducted by the Vrije University Medical Centre. The subjects of the experiment had their heart rates and stress levels closely monitored while they were shown two different sets of pictures, one that depicted greenery and other natural scenery, and one that didn’t. The researchers found that the subjects’ stress levels lowered just as a result of viewing the nature snapshot. There’s something inherently calming about the natural world.
Sunrise in the parking lot at East during February of last year. Photo by Alison Standish.
The idea that being outside can lower anxiety levels and enhance one’s mental health isn’t a foreign one. The Attention Restoration Theory states that environments that are less natural, such as indoor settings or urban environments, require a higher level of attention. This kind of attention is known as directed attention, and it exhausts our brains very quickly. However, during time spent in natural environments (whether that be in a park, a backyard, or a nature trail) humans display a different kind of attention. This type of attention is known as soft fascination, and it relaxes and rejuvenates the brain.
As someone who spends a considerable amount of time outside, I’ve also noticed significant increases in my own physical health as a result of my time spent outdoors. When I’m outside, it’s very hard for me to sit still. Normally my inability to sit still is a hindrance, especially at school. But when I’m outside, this desire to move translates into what I like to call “unintentional exercise,” and I find myself walking, biking, skateboarding, climbing trees (you’re never too old) and even sometimes jogging. Any form of exercise is easier to do outside, which is why spending time outdoors is so beneficial for us physically. These physical benefits extend even farther beyond kinetic wellness. We all know about Vitamin D, but according to an article published by Harvard Health, being in the sun does a lot more than just provide an alternative to orange juice. The light emitted from the sun can ward off conditions such as osteoporosis, cancer, depression, and heart attacks. Vitamin D also helps us absorb calcium, which helps us build strong bones, fight infections, and prevent autoimmune disorders.
Do it for yourself
According to the Pew Research Center, 47% of Americans surveyed stated that being outdoors provides “a great deal” of meaning and fulfillment in their lives. 5% of those surveyed stated that being outdoors “is the most important source” of meaning and fulfillment. The outdoors is an environment completely separate from the one we often find ourselves locked into: a world where we move from building to building, room to room, desk to desk. The outside world is a place where we can look beyond these confinements and unlock a deeper sense of personal, emotional, and mental enrichment.
Mayson Dennis is a junior at Oswego East who likes to spend as much time outside as possible. On nice days, she likes to hang her hammock up in a tree and read, do homework, or sleep while smelling the fresh air and being rocked by the breeze. She also enjoys hiking, fishing, and adventuring in her spare time. Spending time outdoors is something that Mayson wants to encourage her fellow high schoolers to consider, especially because of the personal benefits she’s gained from her experiences.
“It makes [people] happier because they’re able to disconnect with daily distractions. If you just kind of unplug a little bit and go outside and get fresh air and sunlight, your mood reflects [the outdoors],” Dennis said.
Bridge in the Illinois Prairie Path in September of 2018. Photo by Alison Standish.
During my junior year in high school, I spent a full September day walking roughly 15 miles from Aurora to St Charles. As a then 16-year-old girl who was (and still is) small, not very strong, and terrible at sports, that walk gave me a sense of empowerment that I rarely ever feel. It took me about eight hours. I walked on bridges, highways, back roads, main roads, sidewalks, and bike paths. I crossed through suburban neighborhoods, industrial areas, and even explored the natural areas surrounding the Northwestern Medicine Field (where the Kane County Cougars play). My favorite part was walking from the outskirts of Aurora to the edge of Batavia through the Illinois Prairie Path. The fresh air, the sunshine, and the scenery gave me the biggest dose of freedom I’ve ever experienced.
You don’t need to live in a gorgeous area to find joy in the outdoors. Sometimes just the process of moving, walking, breathing and experiencing the outside world is enough to transform the most ordinary places into sites that spark creativity, inspiration, and wonder. It’s enough to divert our thoughts from the repetitious tendencies of our day to day lives. It doesn’t need to be a big deal. All you have to do to experience the infinite benefits of the natural world is to simply step outside. You might find yourself happier, healthier, more relaxed, or maybe just a little more aware of the world around you. It doesn’t take much to get a few breaths of fresh air and a few rays of sunlight. Whether it be cold and snowy, rainy and cloudy, sunny and warm, or breezy and cool, the outdoors can drastically alter the way you view the world. Any amount of time spent in nature is time spent well.
Alison Standish is a columnist for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl. She also serves as the publication’s Arts & Entertainment Editor.