Adam Bienenstock

Nature’s Architect: Adam Bienenstock on Building Healthy Natural Spaces for Play, Empathy and Discovery

For some, a deep level of awareness and connection with the natural environment can be the result of a healthy, wild childhood fused with nature. This was the case with Adam Bienenstock, who recalls spending time with his artist grandmother who taught him to “see” all the colors of sunsets, and with his father, a world- renowned immunologist who let him eat with hands covered in mud from the creek, and with his mother telling him that boredom meant something great was about to happen.

Adam Bienenstock  (designer, builder, researcher of nature-based play spaces, founder of Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds) builds beautiful authentic natural spaces around the world for children and their communities. He walks the talk from his office covered with moss and bark. A visionary, and one of a kind who takes the best of the wonderful influences he has encountered in the rivers of Colorado, the lakes of Northern Ontario, the forests of Sweden and moors of Scotland to influence the over 3,500 parks and playgrounds in his portfolio. Learn more about one of the outstanding speakers of the next II Global Summit Science, Nature and Health.

“There is this moment where the doors open and the kids come out and they scatter through their new nature-rich environment with these huge grins as they find their place of mastery, where they settle in, where they feel calm, where they change from just running around like crazed animals to being human, being empathetic, being kind, being helpful”.

“I was lucky because I grew up in a Unesco-sanctioned world biosphere preserve in Ontario. And it was filled with creeks running through it, and fossils that were just sort of being uncovered constantly. You know, we were engineers and we were historians and we were storytellers, and we were filthy. And it was normal. I owned that creek. And when I grew older and I moved back to that town, (which I swore I would never move back to) so I could raise my kids, I went back to that creek as the first thing I did.

“And I feel unbelievably lucky that I had the opportunity to feel such a sense of place when I was little, and it carried over into all of what I do. There’s a bunch of influences in my life, but I was always interested in nature, in gardening and immersed in dirt… for me, was everything.

“Dr Fraser Mustard authored The Early Years Study and was responsible for much of the early learning education certification in Canada, the US, and ECE programs in Australia. Fraser and my father were great friends and I grew up immersed in their conversations.  My father is known as the father of mucosal immunology and is one of the most published immunologists in the world. Dad’s work identified how your gut biome is connected to your brain and how that communication pathway affects mood and immune response.

“Through them, and with my passion for landscaping and horticulture, I was very lucky that I had some clients that allowed me to experiment at their gardens with what those optimal landscapes for gut-brain connection and developmental markers and skills might look like for their children.”

“I think that the business really started to grow around children connecting to nature and became more successful when we stopped looking at connection to nature as a problem that we had to solve, but as the solution to the biggest challenges that we have to face today.

“How people feel when confronted by a rich sensory experience in nature, that’s the most compelling stuff. Every now and then, you have a poignant moment. When people recall their favourite experiences, they are always multisensory and almost always in nature. People remember how these experiences made them feel. That’s desperately important. I have experienced this transformative and very personal moment, being in the woods and feeling the transfer of energy between the old growth forest and British Columbia with my hand on the trunk of the tree while I lie on my back alone”.

“I have witnessed my son with ADHD as a young child, just standing still under a tree that we had flipped upside down and looking up for 20 minutes, standing very still and being in that moment, lost in that moment. I have no idea what he was thinking about, but just seeing that transformation of his behavior…

“Many of the conversations around connection to nature, a lot of the conversations amongst my colleagues in the environmental movement are negative or sad or talk about this dystopian future and this terrible shift that’s happened and begs the question, ‘How will we ever get it back?’ In contrast, the work I do with my team to serve children is hopeful, inspiring even. Building nature-rich environments for and with young people is perpetually optimistic work.

“Soil Scientists have proven that better drought resistance and soil structure is the result of the living communities of machorizza, michorriza and mycelium in living soils. Carbon capture experts are acknowledging that these living soils contribute over half of the carbon sequestration in forests. Immunologists have identified the bugs from soil that communicate between gut biome and brain for improved health in humans. Horticulturists see 65% improvement in new planting survival rates when planted in living soils. What’s been frustrating for me for years (though it’s changing right now), is that all of those scientists, all of those experts, have been operating in silos for decades. We are now seeing that these different scientific silos are starting to talk to each other. What is exciting about this is that in every case, they are talking about the same communities of bugs.”

Ph: Courtesy Adam Bienenstock, Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds

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