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Self-Improvement & Hobbies

Why it's good to go outdoors to think outside the box

DOES feeling like you are one with nature also mean you think more creatively?
The Straits Times - June 18, 2014
By: Grace Chua
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Why it's good to go outdoors to think outside the box Ms Carmen Leong says holistic and innovative thinking has much in common with feeling close to nature. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CARMEN LEONG

DOES feeling like you are one with nature also mean you think more creatively?

That is the suggestive finding of a Singaporean researcher who surveyed more than 300 secondary school students.

Ms Carmen Leong, 36, who is doing her psychology doctorate at Massey University in New Zealand, found that feeling connected to nature - such as saying yes to statements like "Even in the middle of the city, I notice nature around me" - was linked to holistic thinking, which is believing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

It was also linked to innovative thinking, which is preferring to solve problems intuitively rather than analysing each step in a structured way.

How does this work? Holistic and innovative thinking, and feeling connected to nature, have a lot in common, said Ms Leong, a former primary school teacher.

For instance, holistic thinkers emphasise the interconnectedness of ideas in a system, while many things in nature, like life cycles and ecosystems, are inter-related.

But Singapore students in an urbanised society get limited daily contact with nature, she said, though that is changing with the Education Ministry's Programme for Active Learning and the inclusion of outdoor education in the PE curriculum.

The study has some limitations, she admitted. For one, it is self-reported - students took online or pen and paper surveys, and their exposure to nature was not measured. And whether spending more time in nature actually alters one's thinking style, or the other way around, is not clear.

The research was published online in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, an international publication, in April.

National Institute of Education psychology associate professor Vilma D'Rozario said the arguments were valid and its research methods sound.

"For so long, we have known that our kids tend to use more adaptive and analytic thinking styles," she said. The opposite of innovative and holistic thinking styles respectively, "these are thinking and problem-solving styles that work well".

If one uses an analytic cognitive style, Dr D'Rozario said, one would be more concerned about knowing facts and how each affects another, before trying to solve a problem.

"However, wouldn't it be nice to have our kids also solve problems using a more holistic style, by understanding systems more by sensing their large-scale patterns and reacting to these when solving problems, (and) by... looking at the big picture and seeing relationships and possibilities?"

What does that mean for educators here?

"We need to take it to the next level," Ms Leong said. That means "going beyond doing activities in the visual presence of the natural environment" to things that enhance students' understanding and appreciation for nature, such as nature walks and gardening projects.

Some parents are already doing that. Mr Casei Ang, 43, who has two children aged nine and six, tries to take them on walks when possible. "I don't think nature connectedness makes you smarter or a better person, but it just gives people the common sense to balance all the distractions of urban electronic excess," he said.

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