Slow, Play, Heart in Nature

From natural settings to urbanisation our body’s experience what is now called ‘technostress’.  “As a result, stress levels may become too high and our body’s nervous system may become overstimulated. Therefore bringing such elevated levels down to healthy levels is important for the proper functioning of our wellbeing.[1] Nature Therapy, which includes Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing, offers guided walks that are designed to reconnect us towards a balanced, natural healing state. There are conditions for nature healing; these are slow, play and heart when experienced outdoors, in nature. Based on interdisciplinary research, these conditions in nature settings have a restorative impact.  Research has indicated that two hours offers the optimum benefit of time.[2]


One of the benefits of slow, is the reduction of sympathetic nervous system activity, often known as fight/flight response. The autonomic nervous system is a key regulator for equilibrium or homeostatis, by way of the sympathetic (flight, fight response) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) systems. Both systems are needed for life. There are times we need to speed up and times we need to slow down. Our internal body systems automatically adjust depending on both internal and external signals. If the fight/flight response is overactive, it can create a state of immobilization, freeze.  Fight/flight sets our body’s and mind in motion to ward off threat. We automatically become prepared for defence and attack behaviour when we feel threatened, and this feeling is a felt sense that may not be registered as a conscious thought. Our bodies are automatic surveillance systems that sense safety and threat. With a habit of being in fight or flight mode, we can burn out, and find ourselves frozen, unable to be active.

Slow movement is a key aspect to nature therapy. Slow goes hand in hand with comfortable, at ease, relaxed.  In this state of body and mind, there is a reduction in fight/flight mode, thus acting on heart rate variability and cortisol reduction. Both are critical is relieving tension. Slow is a contrast in our urban fast response lifestyle. Slow is now a skill that needs training, guidance and practice.


You can’t have real learning without real playing, is the mantra of Joseph Chilten Pearce, author and educator.[3] Conditioning, behaviour modification and training are all possible and have their place, however without play, the development of curiosity and wonder are constricted. The distinction that Joseph Pearce makes is significant to understand the possibility of opening creativity.

“An astonishing amount of creative capacity for creative power is built into our genes, ready to unfold….we are geared to look for novelty in restricted, safe, and rather unnovel ways.”[4] Imitation, dreaming, art forms using imagination, all contribute to creative development and these pathways are developed in childhood. Joseph Pearce “believed that active, imaginative play is the most important of all childhood activities because it cultivates mastery of one's environment, which he terms "creative competence.[5]

Directed attention fatigue is now common in the 21st century; it is the body’s exhaustion from ongoing directed focus. To have direct attention, there is a necessity to block out thoughts, and sensations. It is the ongoing stress of blocking out information and sensations that causes the fatigue. Attention restoration theory recognises that with certain conditions that are inherent in nature, the body is able to rest and restore.[6]

Indigenous people all lived with the value of play, whether it was; stories being passed down, and acted out in voice or in body; song, that was built in to culture from birth by way of soothing babies and adults in pain, or expressing joy and developing courage and strength, as well as marking and developing identity; art as a form of communication often bringing into attention the hidden realms of life, making visible what is invisible; poetry that gives voice to the heart, allowing the heart to lead the voice; and movement in dance, the acting out of ‘other’,  putting oneself in the mindset, the body of another, whether it is an animal, the wind in the trees, or the movement of rhythm alone.  This development of transcending the cognitive reasoning to give time and space to developing creativity adds volume to ones sense of being alive.

When I first offered Nature & Forest Therapy (NFT) Guided walks for children it became quickly apparent that I needed to change everything I did. I needed to be clear around what the principles of NFT are, and create a playful way of inviting the children into these principles. What became quickly apparent was the laughter; how easy and connected laughter is to playing.


Heart is the essential centre, where life is felt. Heart refers to the connection between the emotions and the mind. The heart feels love and joy as well as hurt and pain. This comes with the human condition. Unlike robots that can process information without a cringe of being dislocated from others, our human condition comes with feelings that include hurt. Both our thoughts and feelings make up our stories, the way we experience our lives. This is known as heart intelligence.  

Stephen Porges in 1992 put forward the notion that there is a third function of the autonomic nervous system, the polyvagal theory that activates social engagement, the sense to care and share. This part of our biology relates to both the brain and the heart. Our environment, including both people and surroundings, has an effect on our sense of safety and well-being. Sometimes we may be aware of it and sometimes not. The body has neuroceptors that notice vibrations, sounds, visuals, smells and invisible vibrations that are picked up by our body’s radar, our inbuilt sensory system. Neuroception is our neurons reaction to stimuli; it happens outside of our thoughts.  “Neuroception sends us messages of safety; that we are where we belong, that we are home. Our minds may disagree with those messages and want something else to be true. We can try to talk ourselves in or out of something, but our autonomic nervous system, by way of neuroception, has the last word.“[7]  This is the power of authenticity, the sense of congruence that occurs when what is said, is what is felt.  We all experience hurt, the experience of brokenness in relationships. These negative feelings can disconnect us from each other. Central to these challenging feelings are shame, vulnerability and empathy.

Brene Brown research professor in the school of Social Work at the University of Houston talks about courage, compassion and connection as being the wholeheartedness that works alongside vulnerability, shame and empathy. Courage comes from the Latin word cour, heart. It originally meant, “To speak your mind with your heart - To tell your story. ”[8] 

It is not easy to have the courage to speak from the heart, especially to strangers, when you may never have tested out the thoughts before, to see the reaction. To reach down into one’s own heart, and speak out what is found, opens one up to uncertainty. “I might be wrong, I might be seen as unworthy and rejected”. This then leads one to shame, the sense of being separated from acceptance.

Courage is the first step outside of regular patterns, habits of mind, habits of speech. It takes courage to discover, and listen. It takes courage to remove the mask of perfection and discover the reality of the untamed world. Here beauty as well as suffering sit, sometimes side by side. With an open heart, courage, compassion and connection are cultivated and healing can take place.

In Nature

The fitness culture is worldwide, with clothes, gyms and trainers creating a marketplace for adults and budding teenagers. Getting the heart rate up with exercise has been the trend whether by running, bike riding or exercise machines. It is not unusual to see some outdoor gyms as well as training by the sea, in the park or on top of a building. 

Research however supports the slow approach to movement, and when this includes rest in nature, it comes up as preventative therapy. Japan is leading the world in Forest Medicine, and Europe is joining the research on Environmental medicine indicating that being in nature offers a boost to human health. We are not talking about the green strip by the footpath, or the small suburban park, but we are talking about the larger parks that have trees, shrubs and water flowing, and the seaside.

Evidence includes physical factors such as air temperature shifts, natural sounds and wind velocity as well as chemical factors such as vapours from trees, leaves and bark, in addition to psychological benefits such as restoring attention fatigue and increasing positive feelings. [9] A comparison of urban walks to nature walks concludes nature offers far more benefit to human well-being.[10] For young people there is the additional issue of ‘nature deficit disorder’[11] with “One in 10 children today play outside once a week or less, and nearly one in four parents say their children have never climbed a tree, according to Australia’s Planet Ark.,”


Well-being, creativity and emotional flexibility are essential for the 21st century adult.[12]  Research from education, neuroscience, forest therapy, restorative justice and social work amongst many other disciplines, all have one thing in common, they are recognising that our human development is lagging behind our technical development. The capacity to ride the waves of change takes balance and skill. With slow, play and heart as the conditions of being in nature, we can develop creative intelligence and be well in the 21st century.

Michelle Brenner is a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide in Sydney, Australia.


[1] K. Meyer and R. Bürger-Arndt How Forests Foster Human Health — Present State of Research-Based Knowledge (in the Field of Forests and Human Health) International Forestry Review

Study Session 5  Urbanisation: Trends, Causes and Effects

Qing Li Forest Medicine  -Public Health in the 21st Century Nova Science 2012

[2] Qing Li Shinrin-Yoku The Art and Science of Forest Bathing 2018 Penguin Books

[3] Joseph Chilton Pearce The Magical Child 1992 penguin

[4] Joseph Chilton Pearce ibid 1992 p 206


[6] S. Kaplan The Restorative Affects of Nature: Towards an Intergrative Framework  1995

[7] Deb Dana The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation 2018 Norton p43

[8] Brene Brown  2011

[9] Edited by Qing Li Forest Medicine Public Health in the 21st Century Nova Biomedical 2018


Edited by Qing Li  2018 Ibid


[12]  By Clay Skipper September 30, 2018

Alex Gaut