Animals and the outdoors can be a gateway to education and mental health

Linda Nebbe with great horned owlSometimes a child needs a gentle touch for encouragement or a nonjudgmental being to hear them out.

UNI assistant professor Linda Nebbe knows sometimes that support is most easily accepted from animals.

Nebbe also knows that sometimes a child needs to run unhindered by walls and play without fear of getting dirty. She wrote "Nature as a Guide: Nature in Counseling, Therapy and Education" more than 20 years ago. Now the U.S. Department of Education is catching on and including environmental literacy under its "Well-Rounded Education" budget initiative, reaping praise from the No Child Left Inside Coalition.

The idea that young people receive a meaningful and robust education about their natural world is nothing new to Nebbe. As a school counselor for 10 years, Nebbe incorporated animals and nature in her practice and saw students transform from defiant introverts to curious innocents in the presence of an animal. She strongly believes in the concept of biophilia: the biologically based, inherent human need to affiliate with the life and life-like processes … essential for mental and physical health.

"Research shows that hormones affecting personal attachment, sleep patterns, stress, mood, weight and the immune system are positively influenced by exposure to animals, sunshine and dirt -- in other words, nature," Nebbe said. "It's not just good for us, it's essential."

Linda Nebbe holds a ruby-throated hummingbirdNebbe, who is also a wildlife rehabilitator, teaches a course commonly referred to as "Animal Camp." UNI counseling students serve as counselors for at-risk kid campers to put their classroom concepts to practice. The camp takes place on the 22 acres she and her husband bought 27 years ago and converted from a hog lot and farmland into a home for native flora and fauna.

Each year, Nebbe gets more proof that nature has a positive impact on children's mental health.

A girl whose classmates claimed that she never talked was talking all the time by the end of her week at camp. A rough-and-tumble group of verbally abusive teenage boys became so involved with their activities that they became leaders and role models for the younger campers. A boy diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder was held back two years in school. Nebbe remembers that at school he was always reprimanded with a "sit down" and told not to do things. Then she watched as the boy stood still, birds flying about and eventually landing on him.

"His mother would pick him up from camp with tears in his eyes," she said, "and say she's never seen him that happy."

Nebbe knows that children and adults need exposure to nature for a full, happy and healthy life. She said the camp counselors often grow as much as the campers do.

"It's a sad fact that humans spend less time outdoors than at any time in the past," she said. "You need to experience it, or you'll never know what you don't know."

Top: Linda Nebbe holds a Great Horned Owl. Bottom, she holds a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird