What it’s and the way lecturers might help
During the final year of the coronavirus quarantine, children spent a lot of time indoors in front of screens. The long months of confinement heightened concerns that children were suffering from natural deficit disorder. While not a medical diagnosis, it describes the consequences of spending less time outdoors and disconnecting from nature – including decreased use of the senses, difficulty in attention, higher obesity, and a host of other physical and emotional illnesses.
Numerous studies show the mental and physical benefits of spending time in nature. For children, access to green spaces can reduce symptoms of stress, aggression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as strengthen the immune system. The pandemic has reminded us of the importance of spending time outside and connecting with nature.
How can teachers – welcoming students back into the classroom, resuming virtual learning, or a combination of both – help students see the benefits of time in nature?
Realize that students do not have equal access to green spaces
It is not a given that children have access to the green spaces that are necessary for their health and well-being. In the United States, access to parks and natural areas reflects broader socio-economic and racial disparities. It is important to realize that students face differences in accessing nature. Offer options and activities that include many different types of green spaces, such as sidewalks, courtyards, backyards, and city parks. Connect with groups like Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors who promote diversity in the outdoors.
Create green spaces on campus
For some students, the school campus may be the best green space available. Plant a vegetable garden or rain garden (to collect and purify rainwater and rainwater) on the school grounds. You can also have the students create and maintain a container garden in the classroom. Because watching a plant grow from a seed is a bloody wonder.
Plan excursions to parks, wildlife sanctuaries, forests, and wilderness areas within a 60-minute drive of campus. For the cost of a bus ride and packed lunches, you can introduce the students to their local natural areas. Take students on a nature walk or hike, look for animal tracks or signs, or go on a scavenger hunt. Consider reaching out to local conservation or environmental education organizations that may have resources to help (including hiking guides).
Bring the outside inside
No, this is not an endorsement of wolverines as classroom pets. Too many liability issues. However, this is an endorsement of spying on all types of animals and their antics by tuning in to live wildlife webcams. For a meditative experience, you can also relax on tree.fm to the soothing sounds of forests around the world.
Take part in a community science project
Community Science (sometimes called “Citizen Science”) gives students the opportunity to contribute to research on a variety of topics. Students can take part in real science projects that add to real scientific conclusions by counting birds, observing the brightness of the night sky, or observing life cycles of plants. Connect with a local science project or let students share their observations from the field (even if the field is just their backyard or a green space in the neighborhood) on iNaturalist.
Encourage close observation with nature journals
Have students keep a journal year-round to record their observations of nature. Make prompts, but don’t be overly prescriptive. For example, students want to express themselves through formal scientific observations, poems, sketches, prose or fiction. Have students choose a uniform “seat” outdoors where they can sit quietly for 20 to 30 minutes, and note what they see in their journal.
Do the homework outdoors
Think about ways you can use homework to get kids outside. Write a poem or essay that describes something in nature using the five senses. Create a map (of a local natural area, neighborhood, or even the school playground) to encourage exploration. Collect weather data and record trends over time. Make a collage of items collected outside. Read a book about nature and sit outside to discuss how it relates to students’ experiences.
Say hello and celebrate the different ways students experience the great outdoors
Students bring a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and expectations to their interactions with nature. Accept this diversity and encourage students to share their time outdoors. I took a group of high school students on a trip to an ancient forest and was horrified when they all got off the bus and immediately pulled out their cell phones. My instinct was to tell them to put those tangled gadgets away and the Majesty (the Majesty, parrots!) But then I realized they were excited and wanted to take in this new environment and share with their friends. Such excitement is contagious.
There is no “right” way to experience nature. Nature – with its endless possibilities for exploring, observing, thinking, playing and connecting – has something to offer us all.