Nature Makes Us Kinder
Last year, my GUS colleague Carol Stewart shared a blog post with me from Londolozi. Londolozi is an online blog whose purpose is to share daily stories from the wilderness of Africa. Carol had recently traveled to Africa with her family and connected with this organization when they stayed at a Londolozi camp site. This most recent posting was titled “Evidence that Nature Makes Us Kinder.”
The idea stated in this post, and in the original article published in Greater Good, supports the premise that nature has a profound impact on our brains and behavior. Scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature helps us reduce anxiety and stress and increase our attention capacity, creativity, and ability to connect with others. How many of us have taken a walk simply “to clear our heads”? Results of some recent studies showed that a simple walk in the woods can reduce rumination, focused attention on negative aspects of oneself, which is directly linked to anxiety and depression. In addition, time outside, away from technology, helps us to be more open to creativity and problem-solving. Scientists believe that, while technology has many benefits, our brains are not made for the information bombardment that can result and lead to fatigue and burnout. Again, being in nature can help with “attention restoration” and get us back to a healthier state.
Research shows that family life has changed drastically over the last two decades. Children, by necessity of working parents, safety concerns, and fuller schedules, spend more time in front of the TV or a computer than they do outside. Consequently, they are missing out on the positive impacts of daily contact with nature on developmental growth (emotional, physical, social, and academic) as well as on creativity and problem-solving. (Spend some time in the fifth grade fort and you will see this in action.) Naturalized play spaces like those on the GUS campus, offering diverse exposure to plant life and open space, encourage kids to experience nature in authentic ways. Learning outdoors also allows students who might learn differently from their peers to become leaders and shine.
In an early interview, Glen Urquhart School founder Lynne Warren was asked how the school came about. She shared that a group of parents wanted a school that possessed these qualities that they wanted for their children: attention to beauty and a hands-on, multi-sensory environment that made things real for children. The diverse landscape on which our school now sits provides wonderful indoor and outdoor classrooms. Our wetlands, open meadows, and interesting topography support the kind of teaching and learning our founders dreamed of.
So, we know that being outside is good for our students. What about our faculty?
This past August, in our opening faculty meetings, we spent a day with David Sobel. Sobel, a teaching faculty member at Antioch University, is a compelling advocate of place-based education, which incorporates the local community and environment in curriculum learning, strengthening community bonds, appreciation for the natural world, and a commitment to citizen engagement. Sobol “celebrates teachers who emphasize the connection of school, community, and environment” and he was impressed with our faculty and campus. (Antioch.edu) It was rewarding to learn from him and also to share our own practice and history as a progressive school using a place-based, thematic, and child-development-focused curriculum to best meet the needs of our students.
For many teachers, getting outside has too many barriers. These include time in the schedule, curriculum standards and testing, proper supervision, hazards, confidence, discomfort with the outdoors, and lack of support from the administration. Step on our campus on any given day and you can see that these barriers do not hold us back. From off-site experiences (working at the farm with The Food Project or learning more about composting at Appleton Farm) to on-site projects (just last week, the second and seventh graders joined forces to make crab apple jelly from our campus trees), you can see that our faculty do not shy away from getting out of their formal classrooms to extend and support all learning. A few weeks ago, the first grade class and teachers gathered outside to release their Monarch butterflies. Other students and teachers crowded at the windows to share the joy as the creatures took flight.
There is still little research about the benefits for teachers of getting outside. One thing for sure, being outside helps us all feel more awake and alive. In addition, alert, engaged, calm students are good for everyone! One study out of the U.K. (Council for Learning Outside the Classroom) shares that teaching outdoors makes educators feel more confident and innovative. When you see kids being curious and hear their questions surface, any boundaries that might limit the scope of our learning disappear.
In ending, I thought I would share a poem. Just this past week, poet Richard Wilbur passed away at the age of 96. (Thanks go to a GUS parent who shared this news.)
Though the season's begun to speak
Its long sentences of darkness,
The upswept boughs of the larch
Bristle with gold for a week,
And then there is only the willow
To make bright interjection,
Its drooping branches decked
With thin leaves, curved and yellow,
Till winter, loosening these
With a first flurry and bluster,
Shall scatter across the snow-crust
Their dropped parentheses.
- Richard Wilbur (poet; died on October 14, 2017)