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Nature and nurture: Connecting conservation and wellbeing

August 6th, 2020, By Erena Williamson and Nicole Gaston

Te toto o te tangata, he kai; te oranga o te tangata, he whenua.
While food provides the blood in our veins, our health is drawn from the land.

According to te ao Māori, everything in the world has a life force or 'mauri'. From a Māori worldview, when our natural resources are not looked after, their mauri is weakened. This has a direct impact on mental health and wellbeing. This mātauranga Māori is reflected by organisations such as the Ministry of Health, the Department of Conservation, and others, who describe how the environments around us have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals, whānau, and communities.

As we move into spring and prepare for Conservation Week (15 to 23 August 2020) and Mental Health Awareness Week (21 to 27 September 2020), it's a good time to explore the interconnectedness of human wellbeing and the wellbeing of our natural environment. This post also includes activities and resources for classrooms and students.

Tongariro peak shrouded in clouds in the background with a girl in brown jersey stepping towards the mountain in the foreground
Image by Pablo Heimplatz. Unsplash. License to use.

A holistic view

The natural world forms a cosmic family, in the traditional Māori view. The weather, birds, fish and trees, sun and moon are related to each other, and to the people of the land.
Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Te Ao Mārama — the natural world', Te Ara — the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Many cultures have long recognised the importance of the natural world to human health. In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku or 'forest bathing' is the art of 'taking in the forest atmosphere' and mindfully connecting with nature (and has nothing to do with water!). In fact, there is so much evidence of the physiological and psychological benefits of connecting with nature, GPs in the UK are now prescribing patients forest baths to boost wellbeing.

The Department of Conservation and the Mental Health Foundation have partnered to promote the positive effects of nature on our wellbeing. The partnership — called the 'Healthy Nature Healthy People movement' — has been in place since 2016. It's based on the principles that:

  • the wellbeing of all societies depends on healthy ecosystems
  • parks nurture healthy ecosystems
  • contact with nature is essential for improving emotional, physical, and spiritual health and wellbeing, and
  • parks are fundamental to economic growth and to vibrant and healthy communities.

DOC and Mental Health Foundation partnership, Department of Conservation

This partnership is supported by the evidence detailed in the Department of Conservation report Health and wellbeing benefits of conservation in New Zealand (pdf, 596KB) — a useful starting point (with the other resources in this post) for exploring the interconnectedness of human wellbeing and conservation.

Wellbeing in balance

There are several different models of Māori health that are used to illustrate and explore hauora (health and wellbeing) that are unique to New Zealand. Words such as 'waiora' and 'whakaoranga' can also help describe this holistic understanding of wellbeing central to the Māori worldview. The defining feature of all of these terms and models is an emphasis on an interconnected view of wellbeing that goes beyond physiological health alone.

Hauora values many dimensions, including the emotional, mental, social, and spiritual wellbeing of whānau and communities. It also reflects the multidimensional nature of identity for Māori, where an individual's health is also intimately and tightly connected to their community and the natural world.

Climate change and destruction of natural environments exacerbate the ongoing effects of colonisation and have lead to significant impacts on the physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of not only Māori but all New Zealanders.

One of the most well-known models for exploring this holistic view of wellbeing is Te Whare Tapa Whā.

Graphic showing Te Whare Tapa Whā model of health — with whare’s 4 walls and floor to represent the separate dimensions of hauora
Te Whare Tapa Whā. Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. Used with permission.

Te Whare Tapa Whā is a model with 4 dimensions of wellbeing developed by Sir Mason Durie in 1984 to provide a Māori perspective on health. The dimensions are:

  • taha tinana (physical wellbeing)
  • taha hinengaro (mental wellbeing)
  • taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing)
  • taha whānau (family wellbeing).

Te Whare Tapa Whā and wellbeing has more about each of the dimensions.

The 4 dimensions represent the walls of a wharenui (meeting house). The wharenui’s connection with the whenua (land) forms the foundation for the other 4 dimensions.

Should one of the four dimensions be missing or in some way damaged, a person, or a collective may become ‘unbalanced’ and subsequently unwell.
Māori health models – Te Whare Tapa Whā, Ministry of Health

Nature heals

When one side of a whare is unbalanced, building a connection with nature and the land can help restore the balance. There are many well-known stories of how reconnecting with nature has helped heal people from grief, trauma, loss, depression, and other mental and physical health issues.

Brando Yelavich is a young New Zealander who, as a teenager, experienced severe depression and struggled with mental health and substance abuse. In 2013, he decided to set out on an epic journey to walk all 15,000 km of New Zealand's coastline, on his own, completely self-sufficiently. He hunted, fished, and foraged for food while traversing endless stretches of beach, sheer cliffs, sharp and slippery rocks, dangerous harbours, and deep rivers.

Despite the very real dangers of drowning, injury, and hypothermia, he completed the journey and healed himself through this intense immersion in and connection with nature. He went on to write books about his experience, depart on more adventures, and become a sought-after guest speaker. He credits his 18 months in the wilderness to changing his philosophy on life.

The past year and a half has proven to me that anything, absolutely anything, is possible, as long as you set your mind to it.
— Brando Yelavich, NZ Herald

Brando's story is available free to teachers in several formats, and is a useful starting point for exploring the connection between conservation and wellbeing:

  • Diary of a Wild Boy — available as text and audio download, the contexts and concepts link to English, health, and physical education at level 4 of the curriculum. The text has a reading level of 5–6 years. There is also teacher support material available.
  • Wildboy: The Journey of Brando Yelavich — available as text with photos, and is also at curriculum level 4, with a reading level of 7 years.

This is just one example of how connecting with nature improved a young New Zealander's wellbeing. This story could spark conversations with your students around their experiences of connecting with the natural world and how it impacted their wellbeing. This might be as simple as sharing memories about a great bush walk or day at the beach with whānau.

Girl and mother walking on grassy estuary
Image by Simon Rae. Unsplash. License to use.

Papatūānuku is our CEO

The world is a vast family, and humans are children of the earth and sky, and cousins to all living things. Such unity means that nature is the ultimate teacher about life.
Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Te Ao Mārama – the natural world: The importance of the land', Te Ara — the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

With Te Whare Tapa Whā, whenua (land), embodied by Papatūānuku, plays a crucial role in supporting the 4 sides of the wharenui. Researchers overseas have found that environmental factors can greatly impact our stress levels, which, in turn, impacts our bodies. Countless studies, as well as indigenous knowledge, support claims that connecting with Papatūānuku heals, soothes, restores, and connects.

While mindfully connecting with nature has long been a part of the customary practices of Māori, Japanese, and many other cultures, studies have now shown that spending time in nature can reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, and improve concentration and memory. In addition, a chemical released by trees and plants, called phytoncides, has been found to boost the immune system.

Papatūānuku does much more than provide the basic necessities that allow humans to survive. Where there are healthy ecosystems and rich biodiversity, she may have the capacity to improve our wellbeing and consequently our mental health.

On the flip side though, in a recent study, scientists argue that biodiversity loss could threaten our wellbeing and have potential repercussions for our mental health.

Similarly, too much time in front of screens and away from nature has been found to have serious negative impacts on our health.

'Nature deprivation', a lack of time in the natural world, largely due to hours spent in front of TV or computer screens, has been associated, unsurprisingly, with depression. More unexpected are studies by Weinstein and others that associate screen time with loss of empathy and lack of altruism.
How does nature impact our wellbeing? University of Minnesota

Through the work of scientists around the world, including the mātauranga (knowledge, wisdom) of Māori and other indigenous cultures, it is clear that practising kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and conserving and protecting our natural environment goes hand in hand with looking after our own wellbeing.

Save the planet, save ourselves

Many of us intuitively or implicitly recognise how crucial the conservation of our natural spaces is to our wellbeing. We are now beginning to understand that even environments such as wetlands — once thought to be useless bogs, requiring extensive draining to be productive land — are important not just to biodiversity and ecosystem health, but to our own wellbeing.

Wetlands are healing places ... places of purification, containment, gentle release.
Wetlands, New Zealand National Geographic

Nevertheless, less than 10% of New Zealand's wetlands remain of what scientists estimate was once 2.4 million hectares. With that loss of habitat, many endemic fish and birds have been lost to obscurity or extinction. Unfortunately, today our remaining wetlands still face the threats of drainage, clearance, pollution, choking sediment, invasive weeds, and animal pests.

Papatūānuku [the earth mother] is a graceful lady, but we no longer give thanks for what we take… We’re doing things without thinking about the consequences. We cannot expect Papatūānuku to brook our rapacity forever.
Wetlands, New Zealand National Geographic

This is just one example, amongst countless others, where critical habitat loss has occurred to make way for 'more productive' uses of land. Stories like this occur in the news regularly, with construction of new roads, housing developments, and intensive farming all having a serious impact on the degradation of our natural world. As with the principles of hauora, balance is key to ensuring the wellbeing of both humans and natural environments.

So this spring, as we observe Conservation Week and Mental Health Awareness Week, it's worth taking the time to reflect on how our health and the environment are deeply connected, as well as exploring these connections in your classroom.

Resources for learning and taking action

Activities for both Conservation Week and Mental Health Awareness Week align to several strands of the New Zealand Curriculum, including science and health. Below are several resources you can use to get involved in events locally or find out more for your students.

Conservation Week / Te Wiki Tiaki Ao Tūroa — activities, events, competitions and quizzes from the Department of Conservation.

The interconnectedness of people and planet: Learning from Māori worldviews — download case studies and teacher guides from this Harvard University initiative.

Mental Health Awareness Week — official site, including resources from the Mental Health Foundation.

Reading for wellbeing (hauora) — this Services to Schools page on our website explains how reading for pleasure has been shown to impact wellbeing.

Explore your way to mental wellbeing in your school — in this blog post for Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, Services to Schools staff member Nicole Gaston explores how schools can support emotional literacy and mental wellbeing in their schools. It also includes a huge range of resources and tools you can explore to support and develop your students' wellbeing.

Fill my Whare Tapa Whā — this activity from Sparklers uses Te Whare Tapa Whā model as a way to kōrero about the different areas that contribute to our hinengaro (mental health) and the way we feel.

Wellbeing walkabout — an activity from Sparklers that helps build mindfulness by encouraging young people to take notice of their surroundings and how that makes us feel.

Conservation resources — find lots of awesome resources on the Science Learning Hub / Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao website.

Topic Explorer

The following topics contain a range of curated resources for use in classrooms.

Ecosystems and biodiversity — this story explores key ecosystems and biodiversity hotspots in Aotearoa and around the world. It looks at their significance and decline, as well as how to protect them for future generations.

Ecological restoration — colonial settlers, companies, and successive governments undertook widespread destruction of New Zealand’s native forests and swamps. Since then, local and national efforts and initiatives have sought to reforest and preserve what is left.

Environmental issues — deforestation, pollution, overpopulation, hazardous waste, and oil spills are huge environmental concerns. Learn how the Department of Conservation, NGOs, volunteers, and reserves like Kapiti Island are helping to save the planet.

Hauora: Wellbeing, health, and physical education — our hauora, or health and wellbeing is vital for ourselves, our whanau, community, and nation. Importantly, as the sub-topics show, the concept of hauora covers many areas — including our relationship to whenua and our social, mental, physical, and spiritual health. All these play an essential role in our wellbeing.

Sustainability — this topic looks at sustainability and its 3 pillars: environmental, economic, and social sustainability. It also provides many examples from an Aotearoa New Zealand perspective.

Many Answers

Many Answers helps students find answers to popular questions asked on AnyQuestions.

Thriving people and Paptūānuku

We hope you and your students find our resources helpful for exploring wellbeing and conservation over the coming months.

The mātauranga of tangata whenua and the research outlined in this post send a clear message — only with healthy natural environments, can we hope to thrive.

Tread lightly upon Papatūānuku so she can continue to nurture us, as well as those that will come after us.

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