Theme parks, hospitals, and schools are using virtual reality (VR) to bring the power of the great outdoors to people inside.
It is 300 miles to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the closest national park to Aaron Seben's school in Durham, NC. So when Seben, the school's library and media specialist, wanted to teach the kids "how to interact with a natural place in a deeper way," he called on WildEyes to bring the parks into the classroom. WildEyes produces VR nature experiences using virtual reality (VR) headsets, like Oculus Rift, or dome projection.
At the time, the Obama administration was rolling out "Every Kid in a Park," a 2015 program where fourth graders earn free admission to national parks by completing a lesson about native people, citizen science, or stewardship. But Seben wanted to do more to push kids to get into the parks, so after the prescribed lesson, he showed them WildEyes' immersive experience of Sequoia National Park and North Cascade National Park.
"It gave us an opportunity to bring Sequoia National Park into the library," Seben says, adding that most of his students had never been to a national park. "One of the greatest powers of WildEyes is getting kids to appreciate the things around them — their state and city parks and natural spaces."
For ages, poets and artists have known intuitively that nature provides a place of respite, beauty, and even healing. In The Yosemite, John Muir, the "Father of the National Parks," said, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul."
Recently, research supports that experiencing nature actually can improve your health. A study published in August showed that VR nature footage provided painrelief in a hospital setting. In the book Blue Mind, Dr. Wallace J. Nichols uses science to argue that when we are on, in, or near bodies of water, like rivers or lakes, our brain reacts in positive ways. It becomes more insightful, calm, and our mood is elevated. And now doctors recognize the healing power of nature. They are starting to write prescriptions for nature experiences to ease the burden of chronic disease and improve health, through a program called Park Rx America.
Dr. Jenny Roe, an environmental psychologist at the University of Virginia, studies the interactions between people and their environment, with a focus on places that actively improve our health. She calls them "restorative environments."
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