Did you know that one hundred- twenty minutes of a dose of nature is how long it takes for people to say they feel healthy and have a strong sense of well-being? A team led by Mathew White of the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter conducted a study of 20,000 people and found that people who spend two hours a week in green spaces reported to be in good health both physically, mentally and emotionally. The study proved that, “Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a benefit for physical health and cognitive function” (Robbins, 2020).
With the growing research taking place, health experts, researchers, policy makers and government officials are working together to propose changes to bring more nature into people’s everyday lives. For instance, in urban areas, cities are designing schools and office spaces with large windows, access to trees and green spaces, or blue spaces with access to aquatic environments. There has been an increased number of “forest schools”, where most of the learning takes place outdoors. In the United States, Oregon passed a bill to raise money for outdoor schools and the state of Washington became the first state to license outdoor preschools, where most of the play and learning occurs outside.
Here in our own backyard, families in New Haven county have the opportunity to sign their children up for a NatureYear program that connects children with deep, sustained and meaningful experiences with nature. This program takes place in the woods at Common Ground High School located at 358 Springside Ave in New Haven, Connecticut. Their mission is to center learning and leadership by inviting people across all ages and identities to connect to their urban environment, build community, grow into their full potential and contribute to a just and sustainable world. NatureYear provides children ages 5 to 13 an opportunity to immerse themselves in the natural world once a week instead of reporting to their usual public school or homeschooling environment. The NatureYear program has children explore the farm on campus through the gardens and animal yards. It also integrates the forest trails of West Rock Ridge State Park. NatureYear takes place outdoors all year round, in all weather conditions, and breaks the barrier of the typical school day with students in desks and teachers in the front of the room. This program gets children outside for much needed time in nature, while also valuing child voice and student led learning.
The NatureYear program has found that students that attend this program report to have an increase in self-confidence and enthusiasm for new things. Their teachers have observed that students are asking new kinds of questions, becoming risk takers with new things and developing a positive relationship with nature.
Taking the Classroom Outdoors
There have been many studies done over recent years that have proven that students who spend time outdoors during the school day are more likely to perform better in school in different ways. Ming Kou, a researcher that leads the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, found that people who are exposed to being outdoors, correlate to reduced AD/HD symptoms, aggression and other mental and physical health indicators. She has found that nature does not just benefit a child’s mental health, but their ability to learn as well (Kou, 2019).
One study done by Julie (Athman) Ernst and Donna Stanek (2006), which took place in an urban, lower socioeconomic area, found that students at schools with more trees and greenery performed better academically, according to standardized tests, than schools with less green spaces. In addition, another study had students split into two groups, with one group staying in the classroom while the other group had class outside near a garden. Both groups engaged in the same exact science lesson. The results found that the students who worked outside and spent more time in the garden with hands-on experiences were more engaged than the students in the classroom who talked about gardening without hands-on experience. This idea shows how students who were outside and experiencing in activities outside in nature proved to be more beneficial than being indoors in a traditional classroom setting.
Ming Kou found that there are six ways nature helps children learn (Kou, 2019).
- Nature restores children’s attention. Since a child’s attention span is important for learning, spending time outdoors by taking a walk or having a view of greenery from a window helps restore their attention. Nature allows children to concentrate on a task and perform better on cognitive tests.
- Children relieve their stress better from nature. Children are more likely to have less stress when they have access to green spaces. A study showed that children in rural areas who experienced trauma or a stressful life event recovered better with nature nearby as they destress.
- Nature helps children cope with their impulse control. Many children, including those with AD/HD, struggle with their impulse control during the school day, which in turn interrupts their learning. Green spaces allow children to have more self-discipline and regulate their attention better. This results in children having more academic success.
- Learning outdoors leads children to be more engaged learners. Although teachers worried that learning outdoors would lead to more distractions, research has shown that students are more engaged in learning not only when outdoors, but when they transition back to class as well.
- Time outdoors can increase physical activity and fitness. Children that have access to outdoor spaces and green spaces are more likely to be encouraged to participate in physical activities. In addition, the more time children spend in nature, the better their cardiorespiratory fitness will be, which correlates to higher cognitive processing.
- Children who spend more time in nature advance their social connections with their peers and creativity. Having children spend more time in nature allows them to experience nature in a more structured way, creating a calmer environment. Their peer to peer relationships are enhanced as they are exploring and problem solving.
Engaging Nature with Sit Spots
Engaging students in nature during the school day, even for a few minutes a day will enhance their concentration on a task and allow them to really take in their surroundings. However, setting up structure when first working outside can be important to set up expectations and allow students to really connect with the nature around them. Having children find a sit spot allows them to find a special spot just for them outdoors. When choosing a sit spot it’s important to find a place that is easy to visit, that is appealing and enjoyable to spend time. When observing nature, it is important to take at least ten minutes to take in your surroundings by using your senses. During this time a timer can be used to regulate the time, but have the children not partake in any other activities like reading or writing during these first ten minutes. It’s important for them to really engage with the environment. Having students use their senses can also help them enjoy their sit spot more. By having them look around to see different things, listening for different sounds, smelling the different scents around them and feeling the different textures around them will enhance their experiences. It will allow them to connect with nature in a deeper way and reflect on their own thoughts and feelings.
In order for sit spots to work properly, teachers need to be authentic and inspire students to take part in this experience. It's crucial for teachers to model how to wonder and question the things around them in order for students to follow. By doing this, students will become risk takers and take part in an activity that is new to them. This will allow them to become more creative and have the autonomy to direct their own experiences.
Gill Lewis (2017), a children’s author who writes about the natural world and animals, says it’s important when writing about nature to be outside to experience what is happening around them. By getting outside, it allows writers to use all your senses and put it in your writing. By looking at a setting, it allows writers to express their thoughts with lots of vivid details and allows readers to feel as if they are in a particular place. When writers close their eyes, while observing nature, all of them create details to explain sound. For example, instead of a writer saying it was a windy day, they can transform their writing to say, the wind was whispering throughout the trees and tickled me when it blew through my hair. Writers can use their experience sitting outdoors and feeling the wind and incorporate it into their writing. In addition, using touch to pick up things around them helps writers build the landscape around them and allow them to experience what they want to write about before writing. Gill Lewis suggests children take the time to observe nature around them and then begin writing and drawing about the landscapes around them. She suggests writing in the moment about their outdoor experiences and surroundings can help students create a vivid picture of nature in the moment.
Overall when writing in nature, it’s paramount that students are noticing the smaller details. For instance, it’s important to look around and ask questions like: How big or small is it? Why does it feel like that? Is it sticky or smooth? Where did this object come from? Did someone put this here or is it supposed to be here? In addition, looking at details of objects and comparing it to other objects also builds curiosity and inquiry. Asking questions like how are these objects similar and different? Which is bigger? Why are they different colors? Are they arll intact or are pieces broken? Lastly, sketching can also enhance a child’s experience in nature by allowing them to draw the smaller details and labeling the different parts they notice. With practice, this can help children focus on the shapes, smells, textures and other details or objects, landscapes and even weather.