Does the physical environment around us influence how we feel and experience the world? The ‘Supportive Environment Theory’ would say absolutely, yes. Likewise, our mood states and needs at any given time will be better supported by different physical environments.
Think of when you enter a friend’s house for the first time. If it’s a tiny apartment with few windows and a low ceiling, you’ll feel different there than in a spacious, light filled house that spills out onto an entertainers deck.
And what you can do in those places will be shaped, limited or enhanced by that physical space. If you’re planning a party you’ll be much better supported at the spacious house than in the tiny, dark apartment.
This is no less true when it comes to outdoor natural environments – they invoke different feelings in us and support different wellbeing outcomes.
This was clear to me while planning a Forest Therapy program for an organisation with a large area of bushland. To my delight one part of the place had a wild, natural feel. You could easily get off the human paths and follow animal tracks through the bracken. The bush was alive with birdsong and wallabies, and dotted with wise old trees and a number of lakes. Ideas for activities leapt out of the place itself – the stand of peppermint gums was ideal for exploring our sense of smell. The muddy banks of the lake cried out for a barefoot touch sensation activity.
I came with some knowledge of what can be done in a Forest Therapy session, but the place offered what it could support, and what it couldn’t. It would heavily influence and shape the experience.
It was disappointing to be told that these areas were out of bounds for OH&S reasons and that the Forest Therapy sessions were to be on a public footpath, frequented by school groups. The only area allowable to walk off the footpath was around a lawn with BBQ’s and a playground for large family gatherings. While walking around this area my mind drew a blank on any inspiring activities – the place was offering nothing and tried and tested activity ideas felt really flat.
I could make much more sense of this experience after reading the ‘Supportive Environment Theory’ outlined by Anna-Maria Palsdottir and colleagues in Sweden, 2017. They studied the qualities of natural environments that support the rehabilitation of people with a stress-related mental disorder.
They found that natural environments had 8 restorative characteristics, which met different needs in people dependent on their stress levels.
People experiencing high levels of stress seeking recovery and healing wanted an ‘inward directed engagement’ with nature. The ideal natural environment was one that was:
People that were moderately affected by stress sought ‘emotional engagement’. A natural environment that met their needs was one where:
4. The environment and space prompted discovery and stimulation. One with the feeling of entering another world invoking awe (such as the darkness and silence of a pine forest or a wide open beach)
5. There was richness in species and high biodiversity of plants and animals, which sparks fascination, curiosity and inquiry.
Those who were minimally or not at all stressed craved active and outward directed engagement and wanted to watch and interact with other people. They sought places where:
6. They could see traces or evidence of human culture and influence
7. There was prospect, open spaces, views and social opportunities
8. Social spaces were specifically set up for people to meet, play and interact.
This theory perfectly explained my Forest Therapy experience! The goal of Forest Therapy is for people to de-stress by having opportunities for slowing down and introspection. The initial site I’d chosen had all of the first 5 characteristics of a natural place, which were ideal for highly and moderately stressed people seeking solitude and time away from social interaction. The site that the organisation wanted me to use for Forest Therapy had characteristics 6 to 8 and was ideal for people with no or minimal stress seeking social engagement. The latter site just couldn’t support the experience I was wanting to create – its inherent characteristics weren’t designed to do so.
This theory really helped to put into words my intuitive feeling about the different locations at the site – I now have some language around why the first site was perfect and why the second site could never have worked. The Supportive Environment Theory can be a really helpful framework for anyone planning outdoor experiences, be it for themselves or others. Clearly understanding what people need from the experience, and how stressed they are can greatly help to find the ideal natural setting to support and enhance the outdoor experience.