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Washington State University

Today’s Lab Assignment: Take a Bath

Posted by rdsayler | November 23, 2022

Special Report on Climate Anxiety:

I recently asked students in one of my senior classes to take a bath. Now you might be surprised at my audacity and think that they were highly offended. Quite the contrary. They loved it and it was one of their favorite assignments!

One of the classes that I’ve taught for a long time is a senior, interdisciplinary capstone science class in restoration ecology. Restoration ecology is typically conceived as an applied ecology course that teaches people how to restore species, habitats, landscapes, and ecosystems to better support biological diversity and desirable ecological functioning.

While we can’t go back in time to remake life the way it once was, we can try to make things better in our current and future environment. We can work hard to make the future better than it otherwise might be without our actions.

Restoration ecology is therefore partly a how-to course in applied ecology. How to restore a prairie, a forest, a wetland. How to restore a rhinoceros. You get the picture.

WSU Arboretum garden and benches
[Trees, flowers, and benches in the WSU Arboretum. Photo by R. Sayler]

I find an inspiring enthusiasm among our students for getting outdoors and getting their hands dirty while working on local restoration projects, and as a teacher, I try to demonstrate and explain why even small-scale projects, such as those we conduct in the naturalized landscapes of the WSU Arboretum or the nearby Magpie Forest Ecological Reserve, are worthwhile to pursue.

In recent years, the topic of climate and ecological anxiety has become deeply embedded and pervasive within our students and many others. As part of my ongoing conversations and coaching of students, I encourage them to find ways to deal with these emotions and take care of themselves to retain that enthusiasm that drives efforts to improve the future. And so, I decided to use one lab period to explore one solution or approach to deal with climate anxiety in the context of restoration ecology.

Taking a Bath: Shinrin-Yoku

Nature heals. One method of dealing with climate anxiety and even depression for broadly-defined environmental science students and others can be to let Mother Nature help restore and create an inward sense of calm and peace that relaxes and refreshes a person. Nature can help restore a sense of mindfulness and purpose and remind you that your actions to improve our environment are neither too little or meaningless, no matter how small they might seem. If nothing else, connecting with Nature reminds you of exactly why you’re working to improve our global environment.

Path in woodland in WSU Arboretum
[Trail through woodland in the WSU Arboretum. Photo by R. Sayler.]


In Japan, the practice of Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, is simply spending time in a forest and surrounding yourself in the sensory experience of being in a forest. The act of relaxing and enjoying Nature can bring direct physical benefits to many people. Not surprisingly, Mother Nature provides some of the very best medicine and antidotes for humanity’s worries and troubles. As I told my students “The often frenetic pace of the human world is slowed when life is instead measured by the sun, the wind, and the plants and animals that surround us.”

The Assignment

I’ll not go into great detail about the specifics of this laboratory assignment. I gave students a brief introduction to the therapeutic and healing aspects of Nature and then pointed them to several descriptions of “Forest Bathing” or what we might call forest therapy (e.g., see: NPR – Forest Bathing).

The actual laboratory assignment was rather simple and open-ended. I asked the class, as individuals, to temporarily put away the stresses of their immediate coursework and impending due dates for assignments and try to experience a little bit of forest bathing or connection to Nature for just one field laboratory session:

I take a relaxed, open-minded approach to this laboratory assignment to experience forest-bathing as a tiny part of this course in restoration ecology. By that I mean that you need not necessarily go deep into a large forest somewhere. In fact, I’ll suggest that many, if not most of you, should use the WSU Arboretum, Magpie Forest, or elsewhere on the WSU campus to attempt a small bit of “forest bathing” or otherwise establish a brief connection to Nature. Take a few moments to sit quietly and enjoy or reflect on life. Or not, as you wish.”

I suggest that you don’t attempt to achieve any highly specific objective. But I do suggest turning off the cell phone for a few minutes of quiet and peace. Let the moment, the sunlight, the wind, the time of day, and the location determine what you may sense and feel.” 

I then gave them some alternatives and suggestions for connecting with Nature without necessarily being in a forest, and asked for a simple, short, open-ended lab report to be posted online in our private, university-hosted class web site as part of our ongoing class discussions:

    1. Describe where you went and what you did for your forest bathing experience. 
    2. If you can, please share some of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that you may have had while forest bathing. If you wish, just provide a short description of what may or may not have happened to you and your thinking while attempting to forest bathe. Or, if you prefer, provide a very short, informal essay about your experience or something inspired by your experience. If nothing else, and even if your forest bathing experience wasn’t the best, what do you think about the concept of forest bathing, and do you or have you essentially practiced it before without knowing about the formal concept?
Bench by WSU Arboretum pond
[Bench overlooking a pond in the WSU Arboretum. Photo by R. Sayler.]


What the Class Reported

I’m sure that it will completely shock you that 100% of students participating in this laboratory assignment reported that they enjoyed a fun, easy-to-complete, no grade, stress-free outdoor activity. I know. Shocking.

Many students said that while they previously didn’t know about the formal concept of forest bathing, they felt the approach and experience was valuable in reducing stress and giving them time and a place to think in a relaxed fashion. Many said the activity was a valuable reminder that they needed to more frequently take the time to practice forest bathing or use other similar ways of connecting with Nature (e.g., hiking, bird watching, gardening, etc.). 

Path by bench in WSU Arboretum
[Path by tree-stump bench in the WSU Arboretum. Photo by R. Sayler.]


But perhaps a more important observation from this class activity is that a full 75% of students either used on-campus natural areas (e.g., the WSU Arboretum, the nearby Magpie Forest Ecological Reserve, or gardens, parks, and walking trails in the city of Pullman), or else they traveled only a short distance outside of town to other nearby natural areas (e.g., Kamiak Butte, Rose Creek Nature Preserve). The remainder of students took advantage of individual opportunities for more distant travel to forests elsewhere for experiences while they were camping, hiking, visiting farms and cabins, etc.

Benefits of Bathing in Nature

These modest and informal results highlight the importance of carefully designing and creating an abundance of on-campus and near-campus landscapes and places for students and other individuals to physically or mentally escape for a while and experience a connection to the natural world. While campus landscapes and green spaces are often appreciated for the beauty and visual appeal they add to campuses, green infrastructure also may play a substantial role in helping students and others deal with the many stresses they encounter in their academic and personal life.

The forest bathing exercise was only a small component of my course in restoration ecology, which heavily leverages students working in our available outdoor campus laboratories (e.g., arboretum, natural areas, community landscapes, etc.). However, it helped support and reinforce class discussions about the benefits of ecological restoration and opportunities to connect people to the natural world, even on small-scale restoration projects.

Fall trees and benches by the WSU Alumni Centre 2007
[Trees and benches in Fall, 2007, by the WSU Alumni Centre. Photo by R. Sayler.]

Not everyone will have the opportunity to work on restoring the Amazon Rainforest or a high-profile endangered species, like an endangered rhinoceros, but designing and restoring local connections to Nature helps students and others to better realize why they may have chosen various careers to work on saving and improving our global environment. For many students, taking a forest bath was a reminder of why they elected to go to a university in the first place and the possible and important linkages between Nature and their mental health.

Perhaps the next time you feel frazzled and walk out the door and someone asks “where are you going?” you might just decide to answer, “I think I’m going to take a bath…”


R. Sayler
WSU School of the Environment


For More Information See: Climate Anxiety in Environmental Science Students (and what to do about it)

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