The benefits of being outdoors

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman


Nature is a wonderful co-therapist, according to Lauren Kahn, a Mount Airy-based licensed marriage and family therapist, who is also an ecotherapist, offering outdoor sessions to allow her patients to connect with the healing power of nature.

“It’s very different being outside, being in the elements where you can really hear the birds, feel the breeze, see the trees and the details of nature, and fully engage all your senses,” Kahn said.

She meets with clients in different locations throughout Wissahickon Park in Northwest Philadelphia, as well as at The Discovery Center in Fairmount Park, blocks from Strawberry Mansion.

Kahn described how the natural world can inspire change in people. One day, she was walking with a client, and they saw chipmunks everywhere they turned. As they continued walking, they saw four turtles perched on a log, basking in the sun.

The two talked about the differences between chipmunk and turtle behavior. Then, Kahn asked her client if she felt more like a chipmunk or a turtle in her relationship with her husband, a topic they had been addressing in therapy.

The following week the client came back and said, “I really tried to be like a turtle this week. I felt calmer, I was able to let things go by. I didn’t feel like I was scurrying around and rushing all the time.”

Another example of the power of nature is how trees can represent change. When walking through the woods in wintertime, it can sometimes seem like the trees are dead.

“The trees aren’t dead,” Kahn said “They’re very much alive. They’re just conserving their energy. And, then in the spring, we see an incredible burst of life. The fall is also a season where you get to see intensely how life is constantly changing.”

Kahn said that her ecotherapy clients have recognized that “the changing of the trees is so beautiful that, maybe, I can see change in myself as also beautiful. I’m changing, I’m aging, I’m growing. One of the things that happens is people start to feel more comfortable with the idea of change in their life because they begin to see that nature is always changing; life is always changing. By being in nature, we recognize our own true nature.”

Peter Kurtz, 69, loves being outdoors. He retired last summer after working at Pennypack Environmental Center for more than 30 years. Now the Fox Chase resident, who lives about a mile from the park, returns there, when the weather is acceptable, to hike.

“Time with nature is very helpful,” said Kurtz, a birdwatcher and a self-described botanist. “It gets you away from a lot of the stresses of life. The great thing about the park is you can do things at your own pace, and there’s so many nice things to see and enjoy. And the park is different things for different people. People enjoy biking, walking – alone or with their dogs, and fishing. There are so many different activities that the park allows that people can enjoy.”

In the park, Kurtz can watch different plants come up, as well as see different animals, like chipmunks, woodpeckers, bird migrations and even a minx.

“You never know what you’re going to see and what’s going to be out there,” Kurtz said. “Even if you go to the same place every day, there are differences. The weather’s different. You might see an animal one day that you won’t see another day. Even if you go out looking for something in particular, you might be surprised by something you weren’t expecting at all. It makes it more enjoyable, more fun.”

Debbie Hoellein, 70, is a retired physician who now serves as a trail ambassador for Friends of the Wissahickon in the Wissahickon Valley Park. The instructor-like ambassadors assist visitors with anything from directions to leading hikes, as well as teach about the park’s history, flora, wildlife and geology.

A lifelong learner, she likes studying all aspects of the park. In addition, as an ambassador, she enjoys meeting the people who visit the park.

On her park hikes, Hoellein is joined by her husband and others, “We try to explore the different experiences of hiking as the months go by and the seasons go by,” Hoellein said. “I do like exercising in a beautiful place. It keeps you healthy.”

For more information about Philadelphia’s parks:


PHOTO CAPTION: Cianfrani Park, located at 8th and Fitzwater streets in South Philadelphia, is one of the city’s many urban nature spots. (Photo by M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia)


Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.

Categories: Fitness Health Leisure Mental health Milestones eNews

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