About Mardie Townsend

Interview with Mardie

Please explain your area of academic expertise?

Photo MT smallMy expertise relates to the human health benefits of contact with nature. Most people are aware of the detrimental human health impacts of environmental degradation, but there is much less recognition of the human health impacts of environmental deprivation – that is, lack of contact with nature. Yet research shows that humans need contact with nature – a fact related to our evolutionary heritage (we evolved in the company of other species and still physiologically and psychologically need their company).

How did you become interested in this field?

In 2001, I was asked (on behalf of Parks Victoria, which had adopted ‘Healthy Parks, Healthy People’ as its slogan) to collate the evidence on the links between nature contact and human health and wellbeing. Having come from an environmental sociology background, I was fascinated by what I found, and have continued undertaking research in the broad area of human-nature interactions and health outcomes.

What does the research show to be the benefits of encouraging unstructured outdoor play for children?

There is clear research evidence that unstructured outdoor play for children contributes to their cognitive development. Just 30 minutes of green time daily can level the playing field for children who aren’t naturally good at book learning by having a positive impact on their higher order cognitive skills. The inherent fascination children have for nature (e.g. sticks, leaves, bugs etc.) prompts questioning which has been shown to contribute to the development of strong problem-solving skills. In addition, research in the USA has shown that the capacity of children with ADD/ADHD to concentrate is significantly improved by time spent outdoors in unstructured play.

Doing nature-based activities can boost self-esteem for kids who struggle to learn the traditional way and natural settings can help restore kids’ ability to concentrate and reduce stress by providing a soothing atmosphere. We gain life by looking at life. If we see living things, we don't feel as if we are living in a vacuum. If we deny our children direct experiences with nature, we deny them access to a fundamental part of humanity.

Why do you think it is important to connect with nature?

Given the inherent need of humans for nature contact, it is critical that we connect with nature – to not do so results in a range of impacts of environmental deprivation, including increased stress, increased heart rate and decreased immune function. It is also important for the future of the planet that humans connect with nature, because the lack of connection with nature will undermine the commitment of people to conservation and environmental protection. As well as being important in its own right, conservation and environmental protection are also important in protecting humans from the effects of climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution and the like.

What do you think needs to happen to get more families out into parks and outdoors, and away from sedentary screen-based activities?

In order to encourage families to get out into parks and outdoor settings, there is a need for people to be made aware of the importance of nature contact and the opportunities (both local and more distant) for engaging with nature. Offering ‘taster sessions’ for families which introduce them to parks and outdoor settings and which demonstrate interesting and fun activities that can be undertaken in those settings would help to encourage families.

Another way of encouraging families to engage with parks and outdoor settings is through ‘Friends of Parks’ groups – volunteer groups which are engaged in managing and maintaining parks and natural environments. People of all ages can be involved in the activities associated with these groups, and the groups provide not only nature contact and physical activity, but also social connections and a sense of ‘ownership’ of the environment.

What is your most vivid childhood memory of being in nature?

I grew up in northern Victoria and have vivid memories of family picnics on the banks of the Murray River. ‘Sandspit’ was a sandy spot along the Murray where we could picnic, play games and swim. I can picture these events clearly, even though they occurred more than 50 years ago!

What is your perfect day in the great outdoors?

My husband and I have 17 acres of hill country in north eastern Victoria – formerly cleared and degraded farmland which we have restored by planting trees native to the area. We now have native fauna returning to our land, and I love nothing better than to climb the hill and sit among the trees, looking out over Lake Eildon and across to the mountains – it is a ‘restorative’ experience!

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