Trees, wood, roses and mood across the seasons: Time for a Nature Connection Research Round-up

There have been several interesting research papers published recently, this blog takes a brief look at six of them. We start with trees and children’s play, briefly consider “Millennials” before moving on to the physiological responses to trees and roses, and our emotional regulation. A theme which continues across the seasons and ends considering time itself.

Soon after my previous blog on affordances and sense of place, a second paper on affordances was published. Laaksoharju’s paper explores urban children’s relationship with trees and how their connectedness to place evolves. The study showed how the use of trees becomes more varied over time, the trees offering multiple and intriguing opportunities for play (e.g. climbing and den building) that met the children’s social and private needs. The recommendations are straightforward, for natural spaces with trees that are available to connect with – only then can affordances and meaningful relationships with nature emerge. Trees can be the main attraction in playgrounds and should be considered during the planning and positioning of children’s playgrounds and green spaces more generally – the more diverse the vegetation the more diverse the affordances and experiences for the children. A tree is not a tree, rather a pathway towards nature connection.

A fallen tree affords play

A lack of tree access and nature connectedness is a possible factor at the root of the issues highlighted in another paper on “Millennials”. The paper by Metz states that this generational group born between 1982 and 2001 spend decreased time outdoors alongside more time using technology, and demonstrate higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of empathy which may impact the overall functioning of these individuals. I’ve considered such research before and clearly there are a wide variety of relationships with nature that exist within that generation, however Metz uses the snapshot to highlight the importance of bringing nature, and nature connectedness, into everyone’s lives – it is important for children and adults, both younger and older. We all share a capacity to develop a meaningful connection with nature and a physiology that benefits from contact with nature.

Simply Viewing Roses Calms

Returning to trees, my July 17 blog post on forest bathing showed how spending time with trees impacts our health within the context of a ‘3 Circles’ model of the operation of our nervous system and resulting emotional regulation. A new paper by Ikei and colleagues was published over the summer which demonstrated that the same physiological responses can be gained from simply touching wood. In the study, people placed their palm on un-treated white oak, marble, tile and stainless steel with their eyes closed for 90 seconds. As with forest bathing, touching the wood led to greater parasympathetic nervous activity, indicating physiological relaxation. A further paper involving the same researchers’ shows similar physiological responses can also come from simply viewing an image of roses for 3 minutes. This time a reduction sympathetic nervous activity. The response to forest bathing, touching wood and viewing roses can all be explained using the 3 Circles model, which also helps us understand how and why nature is beneficial – you can more about the 3 Circles model in my July blog.

3 Circles Model of emotion regulation

Next, we move on to the link between emotional regulation and mood and a paper just published by Brooks and colleagues on nature-related mood effects and the seasons. This paper shows that the emotional benefits of nature are present still present in the winter, and that although both are beneficial, as indicated by the rose’s study, actual nature is more effective than pictures of nature. The research compared walks inside and outside in winter, photos of urban and nature scenes in winter, and actual and pictorial nature contact. Measures of positive affect, stress, depression and anxiety, clinically relevant emotions, were taken. The results showed that brief 10 minute exposure to nature benefits mood, and that this doesn’t need to involve exercise.

Children by a Winter’s Tree

Finally, a brief mention of a paper by Davydenko et al who considered the impact of nature on the perception of time. Through asking people to estimate the duration of a walk, they found that experiences in nature can feel longer than the same experience in a man-made environment. As above, the nature walk also led to an improvement in mood when compared to the urban walk.

I’ve written before that nature connection isn’t about turning back time to halcyon days – it’s about the here and now, slowing down time, taking a moment to view the roses, touch and be with the trees, be it winter, summer or fall. This can be active, or reflective, children at play or adults at rest. The case is simple, spending time with nature feels good, feels longer, means more and impacts on our physiology, balancing our emotions, holding our heart steady.



Laaksoharju, T., & Rappe, E. (2017). Trees as affordances for connectedness to place–a model to facilitate children’s relationship with nature. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening.

Metz, A. L. Back to Nature: The Relationship Between Nature Relatedness on Empathy and Narcissism in the Millennial Generation.

Ikei, H., Song, C., & Miyazaki, Y. (2017). Physiological effects of touching wood. International journal of environmental research and public health14(7), 801.

Song, C., Igarashi, M., Ikei, H., & Miyazaki, Y. (2017). Physiological effects of viewing fresh red roses. Complementary Therapies in Medicine.

Brooks, A. M., Ottley, K. M., Arbuthnott, K. D., & Sevigny, P. (2017). Nature-related mood effects: Season and type of nature contact. Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Davydenko, M., & Peetz, J. (2017). Time grows on trees: The effect of nature settings on time perception. Journal of Environmental Psychology54, 20-26.



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Nature Connection: A fast, slow and portable Sense of Place

Research into sense of place, like nature connectedness, has grown rapidly in resent years and there are meaningful connections between the two to be explored. A sense of place is broadly about human connection to places, nature connectedness is about human connection to nature. Clearly, those places can be natural, and nature connectedness can perhaps be seen as a portable sense of place – found within every woodland or wherever the good things in nature gather.

Like nature connectedness, place attachment includes emotional bonds and meaning. As research into sense of place has an emphasis on meaning and attachment, it is typically seen as ‘slow’ to evolve and enduring, but not static owing to the various social and lifespan factors involved. Similarly, nature connectedness varies across the lifespan, but can also be increased through interventions such as 30 Days Wild or noting 3 Good Things in Nature. Attachment to place has often been modelled as a relationship between the separate entities of the place and human minds, with a person’s sense of place driven by external factors. Whereas a perspective based on meaning involves an extended human mind and more experiential factors.

Once again, nature connectedness can be seen from similar perspectives, indeed I wrote about the phenomenological perspective of Merleau-Ponty in a 2014 blog post. Merleau-Ponty highlighted the interconnection between the perceived and perceiver – how we are embedded in the landscape, our body is “the vehicle of being in the world”. We’ve started to explore this embeddedness in the natural environment in our review of nature as a new paradigm for well-being. This philosophy moves us away from a goal-directed focus to a holistic worldview. I’ve written before of a view of human health based on a ‘biopsychophysis’, where health depends on biological, psychological and natural environment factors – reflecting a ‘mind-body-nature connection’. Rather than the biomedical model that sees health as deviation from ‘normal’ within the individual, the emphasis becomes a wider and dynamic relationship that includes nature. This interconnectedness provides a more realistic model of well-being, sense of place, nature connectedness – because ultimately that’s how life on Earth is.

An interesting paper by Raymond and colleagues on sense of place published a couple of weeks ago discusses the sense of place research and introduces the potential contributions of ‘affordance theory’. I found this particularly exciting as affordance theory is a key part of my background in ergonomics and human factors, and the more I delve into nature connectedness, the more I find links to the models that underpin this primarily workplace based discipline. A discipline that essentially considers people and their relationship to objects, places, environments – and why not nature? Traditionally ergonomics, in common with much Western thinking, has focussed on interfaces and boundaries to the disembodied self, yet we understand more and more that people are indivisible from their surroundings.

Affordance is a term coined by the psychologist James J. Gibson and it refers originally to the complementarity between person and environment, what the environment offers and provides for ‘good or ill’. It is now commonly seen in terms of the possibilities for action suggested by the environment – a handle affords holding for example, a stick affords sword fighting, pooh sticks and much more! Affordances are direct perception-action processes that don’t involve thinking; all of the information is available within the environment so no instruction is needed. Affordances also support the interconnection between the perceived and perceiver – how we are embedded in the landscape. There are also suggestions that affordance and affect (emotion) can be integrated – intriguing given nature connectedness is affective and the benefits of nature include balancing our emotional regulation system.

A stick

So, like emotions, meaningful behaviours can come directly via perception without thought. Clearly, such a direct perception-action process is ‘fast’, the environment can provide immediate meaning, and meaning is part of a sense of place, and nature connectedness. This opens up the possibility that there can be more immediate pathways to developing a sense of place, or nature connectedness.

In their paper, Raymond et al, go on to suggest how affordance theory can potentially fill blind spots in sense of place research. One of these blind spots being that sense of place research tends to focus on social construction of place attachment from a broadly cognitive perspective, or place meaning from an inductive perspective. The authors note how sense of place can be seen to be generated from being able to ‘read’ the landscape, language, culture, activities and deep emotional ties. Sometimes these higher order approaches of cognition, attitudes, beliefs, social aspects and cultural angles neglect the more direct and simple perception of the environment and its many potential affordances – some of which an individual might not perceive owing to their own physical capabilities or cultural factors.

Returning to nature connectedness research, our pathways model suggests a hierarchy (and fast and slow aspects), from simply sensing nature, to finding emotion, beauty, meaning and ultimately compassion. There are also parallels between being able to ‘read the landscape’ and traditional attempts to engage people with nature through knowledge, being able to read the natural world.

The need for sense of place to consider immediate meaning via the senses, extends into how meaning develops from sensing the environment and individual differences. So a sense of place is formed from the features of the place, experiences within the place and the individual’s social/demographic characteristics. This includes immediate perception of those features and a dynamic interconnectedness between the features and the individual – nature connectedness and sense of place doesn’t just happen in the head!

This perspective could also inform the design of environments to afford meaning, sense of place, or nature connectedness. It is interesting to note at this point that research suggests some people, and children, might need inviting into activities in order to realise potential affordances the environment offers – what can be done with a stick for example. Designing such places needs creative thinking and exploration, but there is a framework to stimulate that thinking. For nature connection we need to afford reflection – a place to pause and perceive – close to features that stimulate using the senses, noticing beauty and resulting emotions. Such places can foster immediate and sustained relationships that bring meaning through function and experiences. Such creative thinking can draw upon the arts and include accessible activities such that meaning and memories can be formed.

The paper on sense of place and affordances has helped extend my thinking on the dimensions of nature connectedness. How nature connection can also be fast and slow. Nature can prompt immediate moments of connection – we can find meaning and emotion before we stop to think, but also when we pause to reflect. And these moments bring two dimensions of emotion, both joy and calm. And that emotional balance brings two dimensions of well-being, feeling good and functioning well.




Raymond, C., Kyttä, M. and Stedman, R. (2017). Sense of Place, Fast and Slow: The Potential Contributions of Affordance Theory to Sense of Place. Front. Psychol.


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A Passion for Nature: from Obsession to Harmony

A couple of recent research papers have caught my eye. The first paper looks at outdoor activities, emotions and two types of passion for nature – important as one is associated with a greater connection with nature, the second relates to decreased connection. Clearly, as we look to improve nature connection, knowing the best forms of relationship is key. The second paper is about the rapid increase in nature connection research over recent years.

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Looking back on Nature Connections 2017 – Beyond contact with nature to connection

The Nature Connections 2018 conference at the University of Derby last month was the third in a series which grows as the relevance of the natural environment to everyday lives becomes increasingly accepted owing to the links to our environmental attitudes, behaviours and wellbeing. We started by reminding ourselves of the fundamentals, that nature connection is an established and measurable psychological construct and that it can be improved through affective and sensory activities (rather than cognitive and knowledge based activities). Of course, there is a need to get research evidence across, so after a burst of knowledge based talks, Mark Cocker ably returned us to the affective and sensory delights of the natural world.

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Does a Green Mind include Emotion?

There’s a river close to home I visited most weeks for five years. It’s the place I found my own reconnection to nature. After 9 months doing other things I returned recently. Hearing the voice of the shallows and feeling the freedom of the flatlands beyond was surprisingly powerful. It was a renewed contact with nature – full of meaning, beauty, compassion for the fallen ash and notable emotion. The river was calming. The sand martins brought joy. It reaffirmed to me that our connection with nature, and many of the benefits of nature are affective – and that there are two types of positive affect that help us function well. Then, when a sheep burst unexpectedly through the herbage of summer, I experienced a third type of emotion!

A place of joy, calm and connection

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Michael Gove and the Science of Beauty and Emotion

In ‘The Unfrozen Moment – Delivering A Green Brexit,’ Secretary of State Michael Gove sets out his vision on the future of our natural environment. In this speech, and at the Green Alliance event a week earlier, I was struck by the recurring themes of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion. Four aspects of our relationship with the natural world that our recent research has linked to improving our connection with nature – see my blog and the open access paper for more detail. It is great to hear the Secretary of State speaking from the heart. However, the speech, see excerpt below, infers a distinction between such themes and science. Having evidence based policy makes sense. This blog points out that there is science of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion and this should also form part of the evidence base that informs environmental policy.

“I grew up with an emotional attachment to natural beauty which inevitably influences my feelings towards questions on everything from architecture to ivory. But while natural beauty moves us deep in our souls, environmental policy also needs to be rooted, always and everywhere, in science.” Continue reading

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Shmapped – mapping the good things in nature and the City

Just under a year ago I wrote about a new project we’re involved with, namely IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature. Funded by a £1.3 million from the Natural Environment Research Council – part of the human health and wellbeing goal of the Valuing Nature programme. Although we know that spending time with nature is good for people, the project broadly investigates the ‘dose’ and which particular qualities and features of green space boost people’s health and personal enjoyment.

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