Call of the wild! Iowa's outdoor playground is important to health

posted on Monday, April 22, 2013

Ever wonder why your office is sprinkled with green plants? Is it because they reduce noise and help control the climate? Possibly. However, the biggest effect plants have on the workplace: increased productivity and reduced stress. Yes, this tiny bit of nature improves our sense of wellbeing, raising our tolerance levels for irritation.

Researcher Richard Louv discovered that contact with the natural world is essential to wellbeing, sparking a national conversation about the disconnection between children and adults and nature. To get a local perspective I visited with naturalist (and rock-star) Lewis Major. His comments follow.

“In the end we conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we have been taught” Baba Dioum, Senegal

I often hear people refer to Iowa as a boring sate. Our State is far from boring, but unless the natural history is told…stories about our once shallow sea, the hit by a huge meteor, the enduring ice age, and most recently the vast seas of tall grass prairie full of large mega fauna such as bison, elk, black bears, wolves, and mountain lions…. and unless we have places to tell those stories ….the history becomes hard for people to understand, to experience, and ultimately pass on to future generations.


Spending time outdoors helps people to focus better, reduces stress, and depending on the activity – canoeing, kayaking, hiking, cycling, cross-country skiing – can provide a great source of physical wellbeing and combat health threats like heart disease and obesity.

Creek Walk

I repeatedly hear from teachers and parents about how much their children benefit from learning about the outdoors and being in the outdoors. I could go on and on, but there is one experience that leaps to mind…

I took a group of high risk, high school students with disciplinary and behavior issues on a day-long canoe river trip. To assist and help monitor the students, the administrator of the school accompanied us.

After stopping along a sandbar to talk about the geologic history of Iowa and how our rivers were formed I encouraged students to explore the area and bring back interesting items for discussion.

The students became fascinated with exploring the sand bar – looking for rocks, bones, mussel shells, ect… Being very enthusiastic and eager to learn about what they had found each returned with their items. The administrator was astonished at the level of engagement the students were exhibiting and the genuine desire they had to learn. He had never witnessed these students having that type of willingness to learn and focus while in school saying, “these are the kids that are usually in my office, but out here, they are actually focused and eager to learn.”

I guess it kind of shocked me in a way, because I see stuff like this every day. The outdoors provides different types of learning opportunities for many different types of learners. It is without a doubt, the ultimate classroom. Not everyone is a textbook/classroom kind of learner.

It is imperative we protect and provide outdoor spaces for generations to come. By spending time outdoors appreciation builds. The desire to improve outdoors spaces is generated. And as a whole, the quality of our community improves, which in turn, improves the wellbeing of the citizens.


Photos provided by Polk County Conservation. Find them online at