“Playing in the garden with Zeke and Pops all day.” Goose’s response about her favorite part of visiting her grandparents was pretty surprising. Not the part about playing in the garden, but the recollection that it happens all day. I mean, I have a magical fantasy that all we do when we’re visiting my father and stepmom is walk around the lake and spend all our time in the garden. It’s not exactly true, but it’s usually the most vivid part of our trips. First of all, they live in the south, on a small lake in a big city. It’s wicked hot in the summer, and nowadays we really only go out in the mornings and evenings — that may be how its always been.
Pops and Oma moved to said lake about 10 years ago when my father retired. He’s since become a Master Gardener, and his yard became so popular among ecologists and other scientists that he had to start saying no visits and interviews. The garden, a term I’ll use lightly here, has become its own ecosystem. When Goose was younger and smaller, it seemed like she had her own botanical garden. Walking all the way around it was an activity, for morning and afternoon, and an adventure unto itself.
For me, an expat who came back to the States stateless in the summers (before Goose was here), it was a refuge and workspace. No matter how hot it was, I would set up my lesson planning materials and my laptop, or my job-hunting materials and my laptop, and sit out there ALL. DAY. LONG and work. Those were highly productive times, and only recently did I learn why. Then, in the evenings, home on break from teaching at the American School of Dubai (it was cooler in ATL, than in DBX), we would hang out on the patio under the pergola, have drinks, eat snacks and tell stories. I got to hang out as an adult with my parents. I wanted every summer to be that way. And as we sat there, we’d observe the growth of the garden. It’s now at the point that from across the water, all you can see is vegetation around the house. Neighbors can’t see our patios or anything. Just the flowers and the trees. I finally understand the magic of all that foliage: a perpetual ‘green break’.
Because Goose started kindergarten last year, I’ve just experienced the summer of a patchwork of day camps. They were all in different locations. I had a pretty steady coffeehouse work station prior to that, but depending on where she was at camp, I’d have to try out some alternate locations. Joe, my regular spot, is across from Rittenhouse Square — one of 5 urban parks in our fair city. Once I had to try other places, I realized one of the main benefits of working at Joe (other than the insanely friendly staff and the ease with which they accommodate my allergies). It’s the trees across the street. Whenever I need a break from the computer (following the 20 – 20 – 20 rule — after 20 minutes of screen-gazing, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds) I can gaze across the street at the park, and feel refreshed again.
Rittenhouse Square is a pretty special park. It’s only a few blocks away from the home we’ve inhabited for the past 3 years, and we’re actually moving to a different neighborhood, with a different urban park today. The number 1 thing I’ll miss about where we live now, is walking through the park — in the morning, in the evening, in the middle of the day. My daughter got to experience the right-of-passage of learning to climb Billy the Goat, just like kids before her, years and decades past. Even though we live in the center of the city, as soon as we step into the park, the air is cooler and more breathable. We slow down and relax, and I let go — literally, even of Goose’s hand — just for a few minutes. In the rain, it feels and looks tropical. It’s a break in the middle of our hustle and bustle.
The ‘green break’ we get walking through our urban park is analogous to the literal ‘green break’ or holiday we get when we visit Pops and Oma. When we’re at home at their house, even from the inside, we have the benefit of the garden. No matter which window we look out of, we can see trees and flowers and water and wildlife. It is shockingly refreshing. I don’t think I fully appreciated the beauty of their setting until last summer. We’d had a pretty tumultuous few years of getting settled in the states, and by the time summer hit, I was done, but I didn’t know it yet. We landed down south and I checked out. I couldn’t make any decisions. Family texted, but I couldn’t respond. I didn’t want to make plans, or quite frankly any decisions. I have a ton of other family members and friends in the city whom I normally visited until then. I felt guilty at first, but I just wanted to be. I needed to be. I wanted and needed to just walk around the garden, walk around the lake, and look out the windows. Eventually, I decided that that was OK.
Science has decided that it’s more than OK. It’s recommended for better health. “Our lives are busier than ever with jobs, school, and family life.” According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, “trying to focus on many activities or even a single thing for long periods of time can mentally drain us, a phenomenon called Directed Attention Fatigue. Spending time in nature, looking at plants, water, birds and other aspects of nature gives the cognitive portion of our brain a break, allowing us to focus better and renew our ability to be patient.”
For the past 4 – 10 years, researchers have been studying the effects of spending time in and with nature, for everything from a 20-second visual green break to forest bathing. Doctors in cities from Baltimore to Albuquerque are writing prescriptions for children and adults to play outside. Even tech companies like Google are embracing biophilia as a core principle. And medical institutes are trying out forest bathing with cancer patients.
Spending time around trees and looking at trees reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and improves mood. Numerous studies show that both exercising in forests and simply sitting looking at trees reduces blood pressure, as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Using the Profile of Mood States test, researchers found that forest bathing trips significantly decreased the scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue. And because stress inhibits the immune system, the stress-reduction benefits of forests are further magnified.
In fact, living in cities with more green space has long-lasting benefits ranging from job promotion to marriage, and short spells in green space improve both mood and cognitive functioning. According to a study between Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, “greening reduces the blues. Cleaning and converting vacant urban lots into green spaces significantly reduces depression and improves overall mental health for residents.” Not only is it important to have green “micro-breaks” throughout the day, scientists are finding that activities such as forest bathing and visiting natural parks have long-lasting effects. An estimated 8 billion visits are made annually to natural protected areas, a number that’s larger than the total world population. In February, Dr. Razani published findings of a randomized trial that found that park visits — regardless of whether they were led by a guide or not — were associated with a decrease in stress three months after the visit.
The Beauty of Green Breaks
It makes sense that I’ve found our past two trips to Pops’ and Oma’s so refreshing — and so has Goose. The whole time we’re there, she no longer asks or worries about having “a big day” — a day spent on a big activity like a parade or an aquarium or multiple museums or playdates and parties. The only “big days” she had this year were to the city’s botanical garden and to a waterpark. She’s happy to be in the garden with Oma and Pops. In fact after we left, Goose was excited to go back for longer next summer. She said she wishes that Oma (who still works) had more time to spend in the garden with her.
Fact 1: Health Unit Says Kids Need To Go Outside, Bayshore Broadcasting News Center
Fact 2: Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health, New York State Department of Environmental ConservationFact 3: 11 scientific reasons you should be spending more time outside, Business Insider
Fact 4: 11 scientific reasons you should be spending more time outside, Business Insider
Fact 5: Take a Walk in the Woods. Doctor’s Orders. The New York Times
I’m sold on green breaks for vacations, whether for a weekend or a week or more. They’re so easy and restorative. An added bonus if you’re looking to spend time with people — like grandparents — is that you actually spend time with them. Being with them. It may not be as exciting as “doing” “big things” with them, but for Goose, at least at this age, that’s been a huge benefit. I relish that she loves spending time with her grandparents, and that I didn’t have to hear the word “boring” (+ eye roll) at all in relation to seeing them.
Once you choose a destination, there’s little to no planning involved other than getting there. If you plan to do some outdoor adventuring with the kids, check out Linzi’s post for what to pack. The beauty of a green break is that you actually return revitalized. You can breathe. You can think. You’ve had an actual break. If you live in the city, your brain has a whole new bunch of eye candy to savor and a fresh batch of sounds and smells to feast on. It’s the ideal digital detox and a great alternative to a staycation. It’s budget-friendly and family-friendly, not to mention romantic. It doesn’t matter the time of year either — these last few weekends of summer and the upcoming leaf-turning season are perfect, as are the ski holidays of winter, and the sneak peeks of budding spring. Green breaks over ‘big days’, even if only occasionally — I’m all about it.