Being outside, as numerous studies have shown, is good for us. The benefits of having access to green spaces are well documented. For example, hospital patients display faster recovery times if they have a view of trees from their window; and regular contact with the natural environment can reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity.
Of all the natural environments, woods and forests are perhaps the most effective for improving wellbeing. Taking a walk in a wood increases heart rate and floods the body with endorphins – feel-good chemicals that can boost mood, whilst reducing stress and anxiety.
A brisk walk several times a week is one of the best ways to improve physical health and fitness. But slowing down has its advantages too. Stopping for a while to be mindful of your surroundings and take in small details can be meditative, allowing you to be in the moment and calm your mind.
In Japan, people have been aware of this for decades. Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a popular Japanese therapy that was developed in the 1980s. And in Finland, forests play a key role in active lifestyles, with whole families heading out to the woods to forage for berries, or enjoy the spectacular colours of the autumn ruska.
Even with kids in tow, you can spend a few calm and mindful minutes in the woods. In fact, children are often better at taking in the detail of the natural world than adults – searching for conkers and crunching through fallen leaves are classic childhood activities that people of all ages can benefit from.
So, whether you’re walking alone or out with the whole family, here are a few woodland mindfulness activities to try.
Look for different textures on the forest floor.
Pause for a moment to explore with your fingers, as well as with your eyes. Feel the smoothness of an acorn, holding it in your hand for a moment and appreciating that, in the right conditions, this tiny seed could turn into a towering tree. Look too for spiky beech nut cases, rough fir cones and springy moss.
And if you’re walking with children, make a game of it! Ask them to find something that’s rough, spongy, damp, prickly – or any other adjective you can think of to describe the natural treasures on the forest floor.
Notice tree trunks
Pay attention to the different textures and colours of bark that surrounds you. Birch trees are especially beautiful – with their pale, papery bark, they can appear to shimmer. Beech trees have a smooth bark with a grey or greenish colour, while a mature oak tree will have rough and cracked bark – sometimes with wide fissures that create homes for invertebrates such as ladybirds.
Find a tree to connect with
Look around at the trees. Which one are you drawn to? Walk over to it and place your hands on its trunk. Look up into its branches and watch the play of sunlight through the leaves, noticing how the light subtly alters the shades and colours of each leaf. Look down and imagine the tree’s roots spreading deep into the soil – and feel that connection with the earth through your hands.
If you have children with you (or try this with a friend or partner!) tell them to close their eyes tightly. Choose a tree and steer them gently towards it, making sure they don’t trip. Ask them to explore the tree with their hands, taking note of the texture of the bark and any knots or branches on the tree trunk’s surface. Then take them back to the starting point, turn them around a few times and ask them to open their eyes. Can they find the tree they were just touching?
Find fascinating fungi
In autumn, woodlands are full of all sorts of mushrooms and toadstools – you’ll find a wide variety of sizes, structures and textures if you look closely. Fly agaric is easy to spot and instantly recognizable – with their bright red and white spotted caps, they look like they’ve come straight from the pages of Alice in Wonderland.
Also look for bracket fungi on tree trunks, and tiny, intricate toadstools hidden in the leaf litter. However, it's important not to gather wild mushrooms unless you know exactly what you're picking. Although lovely to look at, lots of fungi – including fly agaric – are poisonous, and some can be fatal.
Stop and listen
Birdsong is probably at its loudest during May, at the peak of the dawn chorus. But some birds are also busy defending their territories in autumn – the clear songs of robins and blackbirds are particularly melodic. Listen out for, and try to distinguish between, all the different calls you can hear.
Keep an ear out for other woodland sounds too: the patter of falling leaves, the wind in the branches, the rustling of a creature in the undergrowth, or the bubbling of a nearby stream.
How do you connect with nature?
Penny is the co-founder of the award-winning magazine and project Little Green Space which encourages people to make create their own green spaces.