An Outdoor, Indoor, and Online Guide to Experiencing Nature During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Chris Blankenship, LCSW | Assistant Clinical Director and Senior Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys and Transition Age Young Adults
This article about getting outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic was written with consideration of state and federal “stay at home” or “shelter in place” mandates and social distancing requirements. Be sure to consult your respective local and state government policies as well as official public health organizations (such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) for the most up-to-date guidelines prior to leaving your home.
You are likely reading this article from home, where you’ve been for the last several weeks. Across the country, schools, gyms, and “non-essential” businesses are closed. Events, gatherings, and sports are canceled. Many local and state governments have implemented “shelter in place” or “stay at home” orders. Even people in places without those orders are encouraged and advised to stay home and limit social interaction. “Social Distancing” is the new normal as we drastically alter our lives and routines to stop the spread of COVID-19.
You may have found yourself wondering, is it possible to still get outside? In the midst of all of this, yes, most of us are still able to go outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic and harness the calming and health-promoting aspects of nature.
Research shows that being in contact with natural stimuli has a positive impact on our wellbeing. Studies have shown that exercising outdoors relieves significantly more stress than exercising indoors, that time in nature helps to build emotional resiliency, and that being outdoors can improve one’s creativity and problem-solving skills.
As a wilderness therapist, I see nature’s transformational and healing power at play every day with my students. The wilderness is my co-therapist; an indispensable component of treatment for young adults and adolescents at Open Sky. Personally, nature has had an immense, positive impact on my life, ever since I was a child. Growing up, my time spent in the outdoors helped me navigate the challenges of adolescence and young adulthood. Immersed in nature and removed from the distractions of life, I could reflect on who I was and who I wanted to be.
In a time like this, when we could all stand to relieve some stress, regulate our emotions, and creatively respond to the challenges we’re facing, fresh air and natural stimuli remain beneficial. And for those who aren’t able to leave the house to gain these benefits, there are still creative and effective ways to experience nature within the walls of your home!
Medical experts and public health officials maintain that it is healthy to get outside, as long as you are not sick and pay heightened attention to social distancing and common sense. These measures include:
If you are able to be outside, it is important to do so consciously and responsibly. Only do outdoor activity alone or with immediate household members. Mitigate as much risk as possible for yourself and others. Stay local to caution against spread to/from neighboring communities. Better yet—if possible, stick to activity that can be done from your front door.
Some ideas for healthy and low-risk outdoor activities include:
Think about ways you can transform these low-risk, close-to-home activities into a new adventure. This is great for kids, families, and adults alike! The Washington Trails Association gives some creative ways to do this. Bring binoculars to catch glimpses of birds in the trees. Look out for the small details, even if it’s a route you’ve walked a thousand times. Try to identify the neighborhood flora and fauna. This is a great time to find new discoveries in familiar places.
Other tips and guidelines to follow for outdoor activity during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Here is a list of other resources that may be helpful as you navigate outdoor activity during this time:
Not everyone has easy or low-risk access to a backyard, forest, park, or trail system outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Or, you may be sick, quarantined, or part of a vulnerable population (the elderly and immunocompromised). Perhaps you have other concerns keeping you from leaving the house. There are still ways to enjoy the benefits of nature from home!
In fact, research has shown that nature can have a positive effect on our health, even when viewed from indoors. One study found that patients who are recovering from illness have shown improved healing times when they can view nature from their window. Hospitals around the world are embracing the idea that natural stimuli can provide important psychological benefits for patients and staff alike.
Staying indoors doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the benefits of natural stimuli. Open the blinds and crack a window. Tend to your house plants. Eat lunch on the back deck or read your book on the front porch. Listen to the birds sing, and spend some time gazing at the sky. Meditate in front of an open window with the sunlight pouring in or the sound of rain falling.
There are virtual ways to enjoy, explore, and learn about nature, too. Watch a nature documentary on your streaming service of choice, like these on Netflix. Listen to a nature podcast while you clean or rest. Check out the digital Ranger Rick magazine with your younger kids—free through June! Explore five national parks with virtual tours in Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico, Utah, and Florida. View Banff Film Festival’s “Epic Films for the Great Indoors,” a list of adventure films made available in lieu of the 2020 film festival. Or, curl up with a book of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry about nature and the wilderness.
As we each do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19, let’s remember the inherent value in the outdoors and natural stimuli, whether experienced outside, through an open window, and/or within the walls of our house. It is during this time of new routines and decreased social interaction that we most need to attune to the wonder, detail, and healing aspects of the natural world.