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Nature Walk Course Connects Students with Arboretum, Promotes Health and Wellness

Students walk in Crum Woods on cloudy day

Students walk the Crum Woods as part of the "Nature Rx: Wellbeing and the Natural World" course on Monday, Jan. 23.

When Claire Sawyers and Josh Ellow were first conceptualizing “Nature Rx: Wellbeing and the Natural World” (ENVS 015), they had no idea how popular the class would be. Sawyers, director of the Scott Arboretum, with support from the Janet Jones '61 Scott Arboretum Campus Engagement Fund, was hoping to get students more involved with the arboretum and have them develop an appreciation for the abundant plant life on campus. Ellow, the College’s alcohol and drug counselor, was looking for ways to support student wellness. These combined interests led them to bring “Nature Rx,” originally developed by Don Rakow at Cornell University, to Swarthmore.

The class, initially piloted as a first-year seminar and capped at 12 students, is now going on its third semester. Based on student feedback that the class should be available to everyone, it’s no longer just for first years. The cap was raised to 20 students the second semester and lifted again this semester, but demand continues to exceed supply. Of the 60 students that applied this semester, the class only had capacity for 25.

The course explores a range of ways that spending time in nature contributes to human health and well-being, from lowering blood pressure and stress hormone levels to enhancing immune system function, reducing anxiety, and improving mood. 

“The course gets into ecology, physiology, nervous system functioning, and Indigenous wisdom,” says Ellow, who teaches the class, using The Nature Fix by Florence Williams and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer as texts.

“This is going to be a kind of wisdom that you can apply the whole time you’re here,” says Sawyers, who administers the class. “So while I want every student who wants to take it to have the chance, it would be great if they could do it early on so they can use that knowledge when they’re stressed, when they’re overwhelmed, or just for a healthy lifestyle while they’re here, and of course beyond.”

Every class meeting involves spending time in nature, weather permitting.

“Some days, it’s a 15-minute walk around campus, sometimes it might be over an hour,” says Ellow. Outdoor adventures have included spending time in the arboretum and in the Crum Woods, and picking apples at a local orchard in past semesters. Ellow hopes to take future classes on a field trip to Philadelphia to check out green spaces in the city.

There’s no final exam for the class. 

“I try to tell students, if you’re stressed out by this class, I’m doing something wrong,” says Ellow.

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