How Helping Children Connect to Nature Can Soften the Impact of the Coronavirus Crisis

By Ashley Lin

Image: Sara Monson, Walking Mountains Science Center.

If we subscribe to the philosophy that life is always working out for us, that there is an intelligence far greater than humans at work…

That all is interconnected.

What if… the virus is here to help us?

To reset. To remember.

What is truly important.

~ A principal in Port Jefferson, N.Y.

What can we do when the world is turned upside-down? How do we help young people grapple with the uncertainty, stress, and anxiety that is a constant in life but heightened during a pandemic? How can we come out triumphant, even a bit stronger?

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has upended the global psyche. Around the world, people are trying to adjust to new ways of living. Between figuring out how to get preschoolers and elementary schoolers to attend online classes, scrounging for toilet paper at Walmart, and disinfecting every surface in the house three times a day, it’s easy to get caught up in the maelstrom caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

Young people in particular are sensitive to dramatic life changes and loss of connection from social distancing. Their schools have been moved online, and everything they may have looked forward to — from Earth Day activities, to field trips, to graduation ceremonies (the list may be long) — now don’t exist or exist in radically different forms. Most importantly, their bonds with others and their sense of place sustained through in-person interactions now feel like they are eroding or disappearing altogether. Therefore, in these trying times, it is more important than ever to help young people feel connected and feel there is someting constant and positive despite all the changes. That something can be nature.

There are good reasons for turning to nature during times such as these. A growing body of scientific evidence points to the positive effects that time spent in nature can have on sustaining health, easing anxiety, and promoting healing. It’s no coincidence, then, that “getting some fresh air” is the most commonly cited solution to a long day. In short, nature heals. This is clear for all those focused on building resilience among children and youth — helping the next generation adapt to and address problems caused by the climate change crisis and now caused by the COVID-19 crisis. 

While COVID-19 isn’t the same as climate change, both crises force people to pause, recognize their dependence on and interconnectedness with nature, and send us back into nature. In fact, COVID-19 may have an even greater ability to unite people with nature; whereas climate change happens in different time scales around the world, the coronavirus impacts people everywhere and at the same time. It provides a silver lining the principal from Port Jefferson reminds us of, that the virus possibly makes us do and feel what is most important: realize our interconnectedness and reconnect not only with nature, but also with the entire global community.  

And so, there is no better time than right now to get kids out into nature. At a time when the world seems turned upside-down and a time when we need to keep physical distance between ourselves and other humans, that’s when nature is most needed because no one needs to distance themselves from nature. Quite the contrary.The question then becomes, how do we get children and youth out into and connected with nature? 

Right now, most young people are currently sequestered at home while practicing social distancing. School recess, field trips, and guided outdoor activities are no longer scheduled into the day. As childrens’ classes go online, it’s easier for them to spend the coming weeks on the couch and in front of screens. 

But this need not be the case. Nature is closer and more readily accessible than you might think. To be in nature, one does not need to be in a national park or on a backpacking trip in the ‘wilderness’. Nature can be in the backyard, in the park within walking distance, and in the tree on the side of the road. Furthermore, anyone—child, youth, or adult— can experience nature simply by observing birds seen from a bedroom window — along with maybe critters crawling in a rain gutter. With children present, our noticing these living beings just outside our windows can become a first step toward meaningfully interacting with nature and toward helping children use nature to gain relief from the present crisis. 

A second step toward gaining relief through connecting children to nature can be helping them find their own ‘sit spot’—a physical place in the natural world where they can visit every day, where they can check in with the natural world around them and make observations, medidate, become quiet, and let nature settle around them like a comforting blanket. This tip about ‘sit spots’ comes from the Southern Oregon Regional Environmental Education Leaders (SOREEL), which has brought over 20 local organizations and education providers that together create the Outside Everyday project, an online education series providing tools and inspiration for students to get them outside exploring. Tara Laidlaw of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy, one of the organizers of the Outside Everyday project says, “First, I identify four things around me. Next, I identify three things that I can hear. Next, I identify two things that I can touch. And finally, I identify one thing I can smell, After I’ve gone through that series, I find that I’m much more centered and much more present.” She says this about her own adult practice, but her work shows that, with supports from adults, it can become children’s practice as well.

For children who are eager to keep their hands moving, take a look at the full video from SOREEL, and notice when they share how you can also incorporate art and journaling into the sit spot routine. And notice too that regardless of where you’re located, there are elements of nature within reach and which anyone can observe. 

As a third step or as one incorporated into sit spotting, the Audubon Society suggests that birding is a great activity during this time of social distancing, especially as spring migration starts to heat up. Birding is something that can be done on a walk through the neighborhood, through finding a sit spot in the backyard, and, most simply, through looking out an open window. And while you and your child (children) are at it, look up and observe the clouds. Look down and observe the dirt. Look out and observe the bark of a tree. Observing these everyday objects of nature offers ways to nurture the positive feelings and attitudes so needed during these trying times.

As a fourth step, try nature journaling — an easy, low-cost, and fun way to enrich sit spot observing or observing wherever. With a writing utensil and something to write on, children can record observations, organize data, uncover layers of wonder and thought, and notice patterns that emerge over time. There are countless prompts that can be used to help children wonder and think about the natural world in deeper ways and to help them become more comfortable in sharing what they’re observing. For example, children can record observations about seasonal changes and write about or draw animals and plants that pique their interest. Middle schoolers and youth can read excerpts from nature writers such as Rachel Carson and Henry David Thoreau, then write from their sit spots in the style of the writer. For an additional twist, both children and youth can be encouraged to write from the perspective of a tree, dirt, or clouds. For those keen to explore using senses other than sight and sound, children can be encouraged to associate colors with how things smell or feel, and then create artwork inspired by colors. And without much explaining, children can be encouraged to simply reflect on what they notice, what they wonder, and how spending time in nature makes them feel. 

Nature journaling and sit spots go hand-in-hand and are easily customized for children and youth of all ages and all backgrounds — as a way to reconnect with nature during a time of crisis. For a deeper dive, including step-by-step strategies, curriculum plans, and sample journal pages, take a look at the publication How to Teach Nature Journaling by John Muir Laws and Emilie Lygren. You can download this incredible, free online resource here.

Taking journaling one step further, encourage children and youth to make models and mimic nature. For example, outdoor schools such as the Squaxin Island Child Development Center already encourage children to use found nature objects to help design their own classroom. “Sometimes the children build structures with the logs, sometimes the logs become drums,” says Sabrina Green, the center’s operations director. The classroom is composed of not four walls and a desk, but areas such as Root Ville, featuring the massive root ball of a fallen tree repurposed into a climbing toy, and The Village, a space full of waterproof shelters made by students and teachers. Perhaps something similar could be encouraged for designing spaces near home.

For more ideas, Outward Explorers was created as a response to the current pandemic to connect people to nature and, through nature, to themselves. It features short, clear, and colorful activity guides that families can use to get outdoors during social distancing — from scavenger hunts to building ‘beaver dams’ to creating ‘bee dances’– activities which help become aware of the different players in the natural world.

Finally, remember that getting outside doesn’t need to be complicated to be useful. Even jumping off a log or climbing a tree can do wonders for childrens’ mental and emotional health in an uncertain time. Canopy, a nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto, CA, has put together de-stressing resources with trees to help children use nature play and time outdoors to cope with what’s going on, such as this breathing exercise.

As for climbing trees, here’s an example from Claire Kamenski and her daughter, Ella, demonstrating what any parent of even very young children might do to support safe climbing in a near-by tree.

The methods mentioned here are just a few of the many methods for helping children and youth connect to nature while being sequestered at home. Using them may well have a powerful impact on their mental health and support their being resilient during this current crisis. In the end, letting nature bring joy and wonder into a social distancing world may be just the right way to realize the principal’s words,  “reset” and “remember”. Most important, it might be just the right way to sustain us all!  

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