Nature’s Capacity to Create a Lifetime Home

by Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA

Farmer David, age 4, helping to create our first family garden. / image: Amy Wagenfeld

I think that my commitment to nature all started with my childhood home. I grew up in a very busy Midwestern household, the oldest of four children, with two transplanted Brooklyn, New York academics for parents. My parents’ prior experience with plants and gardening was nil. Nonetheless, upon purchasing our home in Southwest Michigan, they tackled installing a vegetable garden in our suburban home with great zest and enthusiasm; determined to be farmers and to cast aside their collective urban world view. Their interest in the garden rapidly waned, but much to their surprise, their six-year-old daughter (me) took to the dirt with unfettered passion and zeal.

I quickly found that tending to the garden was a means to escape from three pesky younger siblings and find quiet and solitude amongst the veggies. It was my place in our home, a place where I felt most attached and connected and whole. The garden was where I wanted to be whenever I could. When it came time to harvest, I can still recall, half a century later, a sense of sheer wonder and delight in what I, as a little six-year-old girl, had nurtured all summer long. I can point to those early experiences in our vegetable garden as the catalyst for what would ultimately define my professional work and lifelong love of gardening and nature as a means to define home and to enhance the human experience.

As an occupational therapy educator, researcher, and landscape design consultant, my work focuses on how experiences in nature impact health and wellbeing. I am increasingly interested in how childhood experiences with nature can enrich parent-child as well as place attachment relationships and buffer the impact of trauma. We want our children to develop healthy and secure attachment relationships with their caregivers and to home and to be whole. These relationships may be nurtured through experiences in nature.

I frame my research and design work through one of occupational therapy’s ecological models of practice called the Person-Environment-Occupation model. Designers and occupational therapists share the person-environment connection in our respective work. It is an important point of synergy for our respective professions. Taking it a step further, occupational therapists conceptualize the person-environment relationship on a broader scale by including occupation in the equation. Occupations are activities, and being and doing in nature, such as gardening, strolling, and outside play, are examples of occupations that children and adults engage in. I firmly believe that environments that are well designed to enable people to participate in outdoor activities through which they derive meaning are where positive attachments to place and with others are created. When people are able to do what they want, in any given place that they feel a connection with because the environment has been designed to support their needs, the person-environment-occupations trifecta has been achieved. Lacking this three-pronged relationship, human function can actually decline.

Please allow me to share a bit more about children and place, particularly outdoor place. Research finds that parents who actively involve their children in outdoor activities in supportive outdoor environments tend to have children who go on to become stewards of the land as they grow up; to feel a connection to nature and place, and arguably, to each other; to do and to be. A recent research study that I completed found that parents who have a deep love of nature are more likely to play outside with their children and to recognize that after being outside their children are calmer and more focused.

Our son was introduced to gardening as a toddler. David helped plant our first home garden and quickly became an expert in identifying herbs by sight and smell. He requested that we plant hot peppers, which he ate with relish. He built bean teepees that he and his friends played in for hours and snacked on when they got hungry. David shared my unbridled joy when our first batch of compost was ready, telling us that it was like we were making the earth all over again.

David’s place in the garden. Age 6. / image: Amy Wagenfeld

Many, many moves later, David still recalls with great fondness how our first home was his root and his place and helped him define his enduring love of nature. It is a love we share, a deep and lasting point of connection between us.

David’s lifelong love of being in nature perpetuates. Nature is his home. / image: Amy Wagenfeld

Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA, is Co-Communications Director for ASLA’s Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN). She is principal of design+cOnsulTation, whose mission is to enhance life experiences through collaborative design, programming, and evidence-based research of universally designed environments. Amy is co-author of Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces, published by Timber Press.

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