Presented by Cathy Jordan, Ph.D. ##
Over the last couple of generations, children have become increasingly disconnected from nature, with worrisome implications for their physical and mental health, cognitive development and educational outcomes. In this webinar we will take a deeper dive into how nature supports children’s mental wellbeing including strengthened self-esteem and confidence, enhanced positive emotion and reduced negative emotion, stress reduction, restoration, social benefits, and resilience. We will share tips for getting the most out of nature activities to promote children’s mental health.
Cathy Jordan, Ph.D. is Professor of Pediatrics and the Director for Leadership & Education at the Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota. Cathy also serves as the consulting Director of Research for the Children & Nature Network, a national nonprofit leading a global movement to increase equitable access to nature so that children – and natural places – can thrive. As a former pediatric neuropsychologist, Cathy has had a long-standing interest in the influence of environments on children’s health and development. Cathy believes that the establishment of a strong connection to the natural world is critical to children’s development, as well as development of concern for our land, water, and atmosphere, and it is important to establish that connection in childhood.
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I’d like to introduce doctor Cathy Jordan, who is presenting for us from Minnesota.
Doctor Cathy Jordan is a professor of Pediatrics in the end, the Director for Leadership and Education at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.
She also serves as the Consultant Director of Research for the Children’s Nature Network as a national non-profit, leading a global movement to increase equitable access to nature so that children in natural places can thrive.
As a former pediatric neuropsychologist, Kathy has had a longstanding interest in the influence of environments on children’s health and development.
She believes that the establishment of a strong connection to the natural world is critical to children’s development, as well as development of concern for our land, water, an atmosphere, and it is important to establish that connection in childhood.
Doctor Jordan, welcome.
Please. We would love to hear, hear from you.
Alright, Thank you so much for that introduction. I’m gonna go ahead and share my screen now.
And hopefully, you see a slide, does that right?
Excellent. OK, Well, thank you very much, Kelly, for that introduction.
Kelly mentioned that. I am the consulting research director for the Children and Nature Network, and I’d like to tell you a little bit about that organization since I’m going to be presenting some resources and tools from that organization later in the presentation. So Children and Nature Network on.
We we see at CNN a world where children have access to the benefits of nature in all of the settings that they occupy. Where they live, where they learn, where they play. And we support and mobilized leaders, educators, practitioners, and parents working to turn what has turned out to be an inside world, back out, you know, trying to get kids back outside and back, connected to the natural world, and to increase safe and equitable access to nature for all children, and all families.
And we do that through three ways. We do that through fostering the belief that nature connection is critical for children’s healthy development.
We use evidence based resources and tools to do that.
We also do work at the systems level, changing core systems that impact children’s daily lives through systems change, policy change, and providing consultation to institutions and structures like municipal governments.
And, finally, through growing the movement and our collective impact by providing cross sector leaders with tools and resources and technical assistance, training, and opportunities for peer learning and networking.
OK, so what are we going to do tonight? I am, I am passionate about connecting children to nature for all of the benefits that nature provides for physical health, and mental health, and educational and environmental benefits, but tonight, we’re really going to focus in on mental health, how nature can promote children’s mental health. Over the last decade or so, we have learned so, so much about the various ways that nature benefits children. Back when Richard Lewis, the founder of the Children and Nature Network, wrote the now famous book, Last Child in the Woods, if you haven’t read that, I suggest that you do. He was trying to be evidence based, and he found all of about 25 research studies back in 2005, when he first wrote that book.
And now we have just CNN has summarized over 1100 studies. And that is, you know, just a fraction of what is out there. So this is an area of burgeoning interest from researchers and practitioners. And there’s so much more that we know about it. I’m going to share briefly with you some of the examples of what we know from research about mental health and nature’s benefit in that area, and we’re going to do that in three areas: cognitive, health, and development emotional, and mental health, and social emotional learning.
Then I’m gonna spend some time kind of walking you around, some online resources and tools, that whether you’re a parent or an educator, or practitioner, hopefully you would find those interesting. And then I really welcome your questions from whatever hat you’re wearing. If you’re here as a parent, or you’re here as a practitioner, or whatever it might be. I hope that we have a chance to talk about how you, in whatever role you play, might be able to achieve this connection to nature with the children that you care for.
OK, so, let’s dig in. Contact with nature offers numerous cognitive benefits for children and of course, as, you know, for adults as well, children are a special population, I would say because their brains are really malleable. They’re growing their plastic. And nature can be one environment, that children function, and that can have a profound impact on their cognitive health and development. So one benefit is the ability to concentrate better after spending time in nature. This finding is thought to be related to Nature’s impact on recovery from what we call attentional fatigue.
And basically there’s two systems of attention in our brains. There’s the directed voluntary effort for what we call top-down system of attention that we are using when we’re doing work, when kids are going to school, when they’re taking tests, et cetera.
And then there’s the non directed, involuntary, effortless, what’s called bottom up attention, and that’s can be invoked through nature. It’s basically it just kinda happens. It’s just kind of fascinating and your your attention. Just kinda drifts off effortlessly to whatever is, you know, kind of grabbing your attention.
The idea here in attention restoration theory is that in nature, nature grabs that involuntary attention, and it basically allows that directed effortful attention system to rest to get respite or to restore. So when you come back to the task come back to work come back into the classroom, whatever it might be. You feel replenished, that’s attention restoration.
So, this benefit has been identified in a variety of ways, in the laboratory and out in the real-world. And one of the, I would say, flavors or genres of research that takes place quite a bit, is this idea of comparing how kids function in a nature based environment, and how they function in either an indoor environment, or in an outdoor environment, but more like an urban environment.
So, a nature walk versus an urban city walk might be a comparison, an experiment that researchers might do, and they typically find that the nature walk results in better attention than being indoors. Or on the urban walk. When they’re tested afterwards, after they, you know, sort of come back into a laboratory. And they might do tests like having kids repeat a series of digits backwards or count backwards by seven or something that really requires that that effortful attention. Even a 10 minute walk in nature is enough to invoke that attention restoration, but it has to be one where you’re really allowing that. You know effortless attention system to kick in just being fascinated by the nature around you.
If you’re trying to solve a problem or you’re ruminating about something trying to work something out it sort of negates the nature impact on attention functions. So when you go out for a nature walk, you pay attention to nature, and enjoy it, and you will reap the benefits of that.
In contrast to attention, which leads to a temporary state change, there are times when we pay attention well and there are times when we don’t pay attention. And it fluctuates, something like intelligence is more stable.
But we used to think that intelligence was just something you are boring but if you either you know patent or you didn’t have it, or you had it in various degrees, but that’s kind of where you were going to be for the rest of your life.
We actually know now that intelligence is malleable. It is something that can be enhanced through good nutrition, good prenatal care, good environmental stimulation as you grow up. And now we’re starting to see studies that look at nature’s impact on retention.
So well Attention is is this really momentary sort of thing intelligence is more stable but still malleable.
So I’m going to show you a quick study here on that looked at a twins Twins in Belgium at the ages of 7 through 15.
And they found that there’s a significant relationship between the greenery around where the child grew up and their overall IQ score as well as their verbal intelligence. And they’re more visual, motor visual spatial intelligence, but only for those children who were living in urban areas. So, that’s actually kind of interesting. You see the top purple line there that is at that upward slope. That illustrates that on the more green, the higher the attention was. So, that’s really suggesting that, for urban kids who might be most in need of nature, when they do have nature around them, urban nature around their residents, they do have higher test scores. That’s 7 through 15 years of age. That wasn’t true for suburban and rural kids, so these findings are actually really relevant for policymakers for urban planners.
And these folks in their jobs, I think, have a really special opportunity to make a big difference in kids’ lives, by planning nature, into cities, in ways that can support children’s cognitive development, as well as their health and their mental health more generally, as we know.
Now, it’s one thing to think about nature exposure, supporting kids, performance on IQ tests, which, as we said, is relatively more stable than attention.
But it’s another to think that nature might be so powerful that it actually changes the brain structure as it develops. But that actually can happen in a study of schoolchildren, in Barcelona, Spain. The amount of greenery around their homes over the course of their life, was correlated with MRI data that basically showed like the volume of different brain structures.
And basically, they found that the more greenery the bigger certain parts of the brain were, and those parts of the brain are responsible for things like attention and memory. Things that we know from, you know, other types of research tend to be affected by by nature, So nature really can build a better brain.
So let’s move on to emotional function and mental health, what we often think of as mental health like mood on promoting a positive mood, alleviating negative moods. symptoms like depression and anxiety. We’re going to talk about that briefly. Definitely. nature seems to improve depressive symptoms. It seems to increase positive emotion, and it seems to help kids manage stress and decrease anxiety. The more that you get out into nature, even in your own backyard, this does not have to be like wilderness sorts of interaction with nature. The better you generally feel in your mental health.
How people respond to stress is a big component of this, too. For kids school can be very taxing. It can be very stressful. Too much stress makes it hard to learn. It makes it hard to pay attention.
It makes it hard to remember what you learn and makes it hard to, um, know, regurgitates, so to speak, or to show what you’ve learned. So, what can we do to support kids ability to cope with stress or to make stress or make school less stressful.
one way is to do more teaching outdoors, making use of nature to certainly teach about nature. You know, ecological knowledge. But also using nature across the disciplines, in an interdisciplinary sort of way. You can do nature based learning in math, and science, and humanities, you can do it in music and art. There’s a study in Norway that looked at two groups of elementary age kids, one group spent their year in classroom based learning as would be typical. And there was another group that spent one day a week outdoors in the forest. They just move school into the forest. It was called Forest school, one day a week.
And then they looked several times a year at cortisol, which is in saliva, and it is a marker of stress activation and the typical daily rhythm of that is that it starts high in the morning, and then you see a dip in that over the course of the day.
And what they found was that the kids who are, um, who were in the forest school showed that normal drop in their cortisol level, over the course of the day. And the kids who were in the control group, the one on the left, here, that red line, or Green Line, is sort of flat, compared to the one, the intervention group on the. right. So, really, that forest environment was a really healthy, non stressful place to learn. And less stress might be equated with you, a better ability to pay attention better, ability to reproduce knowledge, et cetera, Classroom based learning in, contrast tended to be sort of an unhealthy environment for kids. They were at kind of a chronic, chronically high level, and unnaturally, high level of stress hormone throughout the day. Which could have been enough to interrupt their, their attention and their learning.
OK, so finally, let’s talk a little bit about social emotional learning, or what is sometimes called SEL.
So what is SEO?
SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, And make responsible decisions. So, what you can see here is that there are aspects of this that are about self knowledge and self regulation. There’s aspects that are about understanding and interacting well with others, then there are aspects that are more cognitive, they are about making sound decisions, problem solving, things like that.
We work on developing our social emotional skills throughout our life. But of course, especially during childhood and adolescence. And so CL can be promoted in a variety of settings. But nature really is a special and unique place where social emotional learning can happen particularly well. I have my own, I guess, personal experience with this, that certainly for me, validated all this research that we have been finding. When my own children were in elementary school, their school had a practice of sending their children as eighth graders for a final week, to a YMCA camp in Northern Minnesota, Col, kampman Dojo.
And they would go out on, you know, sort of a week long canoe trip, basically without their teachers.
They just had one guide with them and they were, they were roughing it to, you know, it was sort of a big deal. They had often what was called type to fund, which means that sometimes it wasn’t always enjoyable during the time, but afterwards, you come away with this sense like, Wow, that was fantastic. It was really hard. But, it was, it was a thrill, even though at the time it was raining and it was cold. And, you know, all of that sort of thing.
Can’t manoogian inspired my younger one, my son, who is for grades behind my daughter, who got to go to …, and he begged to start going to Kevin Jobe Manoogian early. So we started sending him to the progression, which is, You know, Start short. Start small. Start Encamped just with you know, a week, and then you start going out on trips of a week, 11 days, or 14 days, and graduate all the way to the long trip, which is being out for like 50 days or something like that. And he did this whole progression from the time that he was in elementary school until he was 16. And he started out doing canoeing. And he ended up doing backpacking because, at one point he said to his counselor, you know, I actually like the portaging better than the canoeing. And they said, we have a trip for you and it’s called backpacking, so he switched to backpacking.
And this was, I think, probably the, the set of experiences that define who he is as a young man. Now, he went to Alaska, the Brooks Range and Backpacked, with a set of three other guys, or 55 days. And it was definitely type two fun. It was cold. It was windy. It was incredibly buggy. It was rough terrain. They got injured You know wildly. A couple of times. They realized that they under packed calories, and they had to figure out how to ration their food. They, also.
I would say, had immense opportunities through the challenges that that natural environments afforded them, as well as the social situation that they were in, you know, day? In, day out, 24 hours a day. With the same set of four guys. There was no conflicts they needed to solve. There, was problem solving to do, like, what do we do about the fact that we’re under by a third of our calories? For lunch, You know, that sort of thing.
They needed to figure out how to lead, how to follow, how to co-operate, how to communicate, how to maintain hope, how to be resilient in the case of, you know, in stressful times, you know, things like that. And he came home after every one of these trips, but especially after this last one to Alaska, just a really different person. He was simply more mature. He was more self possessed.
He was more independent, he was more sensitive to others needs, he was more communicative on he was better able to negotiate family dynamics. He had been having to negotiate interpersonal dynamics for a couple of months on the, on this trip, and that generalize to his communication within our family.
And he really came away feeling like, you know, I, I did something really pretty amazing. And it makes me feel very competent and competent, and I feel like I could do anything, and he put that to the test. A couple of years later. after he graduated from high school, he decided to take a gap year.
Before going on to college and he traveled to something like 10 countries and 11 months in Asia and Africa in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East. And he traveled alone, he immersed himself in cultures where he didn’t speak the language and everything was obviously extremely foreign. He managed to get through a typhoon. He had a major injury that he needed to deal with. He never lost confidence that he had the skills to do this.
And that, I really believes that, that gave him a sense of self concept, identity, sense of self efficacy that he would not have had if he had not done that trip.
And he would not have done that trip if he had not had these outdoor experiences that really built his social emotional skills. So, these are kind of extreme examples. You know, you don’t need to go on a hike for 55 days in the wilderness or back country. Travel abroad to see the benefits of the developmental gains and the social emotional skills that develop from nature exposure. This can happen through school programs.
It can happen through, you know, out of school time programming, sort of regular summer camps, family camping trips, things like that.
The key is, I think, though, that it’s a developmentally appropriate, challenging and slightly risky risky in an appropriate sort of way environment. Sometimes this is called challenge by choice. You know, you signed up for this, you wanted, you know, to challenge yourself. You wanted to sort of test your metal.
And, of course, that looks different at different ages, and I think it’s most effective, if you do sort of scaffold it up like this progression that …
going from, you know, a few days encamped sleeping in a cabin for the first time to, you know, hiking in the mountains for, for six weeks.
I think that the, the key here is to really focus on what can the nature provide by way of challenge and appropriate risk? And what it can, the social situation on a group adventure group, experiences, whether that be family, or peers, et cetera. What can that offer in order to create and practice social emotional learning skills?
So, with that sort of primer on what the research tells us, and some of my own experience as a, as a mom tells us about Nature’s impact on cognitive development and health and social emotional learning and mental health. I want to share with you some tools. Here’s where I’m going to attempt to navigate to a different website. So, hold on for just a second here.
OK, I want to share with you a resource from green schoolyards.
You’d see the logo up here, Green schoolyards America, screen schoolyards america dot org. They are taking a particular emphasis right now, uncoated 19 outdoor learning, but they also have on the National Outdoor Learning Library.
If you are with us today as an educator, I would say that this is a great website to come to. They have what they call chapters on lots of different resources, guidance around health, They have case studies of how to make this work. What does it look like to do this? In your educational environment, how do you change your spaces to create outdoor spaces that are appropriate for nature based learning? They have policy guidance, they have ways of, you know, seeking funds, you know, to, to pay for, you know, this kind of programming or, or changing the outdoor environments. So, I really encourage you to check this out if you are a teacher or an educator of any kind and, if you are at all thinking about outdoor learning as potentially a way to return to school out in person in the fall.
There are resources around, there Covert one thousand Outdoor Learning Initiative is also a great resource to check out.
There are lots, in the past year, we’ve learned so much about how to do outdoor learning well, meaning both safely in a pandemic as well as how to do it in ways that support kids. Learning academically, and part of that is also through supporting their mental health because, as we made the point earlier, supporting mental health actually is an academic strategy.
Good mental health supports good learning.
So, I strongly consider would consider you, I would strongly advise you to consider thinking about how you can do more outdoor learning in the fall as a way of returning to school in person.
Treating the whole child, and their health and development is primary, not just trying to make up for perhaps lost ground in achievement.
Now, I want to switch over and show you some of the resources available through the Children and Nature Network. So, Children and Nature Network focuses on youth and families, schools, and cities. And each of these tabs has a variety of resources available that you could dig into, so I’ll just show you some things about schools, and maybe I’ll look at some with families. Maybe I’ll show you some with youth as well. We’ve got a few minutes.
So um, sorry about that.
There are resources about Greening schoolyards so the physical environment.
How might you redo your schoolyard to create more learning and playing. Opportunities. Outdoors is a great animated video which I will not show you. But it’s, it’s great to sort of point out what you can do and what the benefits are.
one of the things that I think is really important thinking at the systems level, remember, children and nature network also works at the systems. And the policy level is to think about how whole districts or whole cities can create equitable access to nature through greening schoolyards and making those schoolyards open to the community. So that everyone has access within a 10 minute walk to a green space.
That is a national goal essentially, for the Children and Nature Network and for the Green Schoolyards movement. So if this piques your interest, I would encourage you to find resources here about Greening the schoolyard and Equitable Access to Nature. There are also resources about, you know, taking learning outdoors. Again, another cool video that you can watch. We also created some infographics that can be used to essentially make the case. Maybe it’s your teacher. And you want to make the case to a principal or a superintendent or a school board about why nature based learning would be a good thing for your students.
Here’s some evidence that will help you make an evidence base case for that.
Nature can improve academic outcomes. It can also improve academic outcomes through supporting mental health, and there’s another infographic about that as well in a different place on our website. And also, you know, can talk about nature, creating environmental stewards. If we create love of nature and a connectedness to nature early on in life, we tend to grow up to be adults who care for the earth and engage in environmental behaviors.
So, they have a set of lots of different resources, webinars, and compendiums of research and and things like that to explore about taking, learning outdoors. OK, I want to also show you, if you’re here, kind of wearing a family, how to parenting hatch, maybe.
There are some resources here about Family Nature Clubs. You can click on this link here, Family Nature Clubs, that can help you kind of pull some neighbors and friends and family together to really take kids outdoors in groups.
And maybe it’s new, you know, to you or to your kids peers.
This is a way to engage in nature in a really fun way and do it together and also take advantage of that challenging social situation. I don’t mean to challenging in a bad way but adding the social element to it, just enriches the the impact of the nature based experience. So, resources about family nature clubs, you can watch another cool video about that.
Also, talking about replay in nature is a really important family skill I think to have.
It’s important to be with kids enjoying nature together but not being overly directive in their play, you know, participating with them, but letting them sort of take the reins and and guide that play themselves or giving them some time. Not completely unsupervised, depending on how old they are, but giving them some time to really do their own free play. That is when a lot of the creativity really shows up.
The problem solving really shows up, because kids are really sort of figuring out from the, for themselves, you know, What can I do in this situation? How can I make this fun? And how can I solve this problem?
Think about, also, if you are a program provider for family programming.
There are a set of tools here for family program providers, then finally, I’ll show you the resources available for youth development folks. So these are folks that might work in YMCAs, or boys and girls clubs, or, you know, similar sorts of things.
We’ve been doing a lot of work about really helping youth development organizations pull nature into their programming in ways that allow them to achieve youth development outcomes, even more impactful than they otherwise would. And so there are lots of resources here to learn about youth leadership development, through children in Nature Networks.
Natural Leaders Program, there are.
I’m going to actually flip over and show you some, just some cool online resources in the resources hub here that are also organized by things like youth, families, schools, et cetera.
I’m gonna go to youth here and we have a variety of infographics that help explain why thoughtfully combining youth programming with nature based programming helps children and youth achieve their full potential, become leaders, have agency and self efficacy, connect with their own communities and with nature, et cetera.
This resource hub has a ton of resources in it. Just diving into the youth one will take you, know, hours essentially, to, to see what all is there.
But there are also resources for schools. Resources for families, resources about equity and inclusion. If you happen to have roles in cities, you might be a city council member or you serve on the school board or something like that.
There are a lot of resources for cities here as well, health and well-being. Also important on.
You might find some things here that will help with thinking about the mental health on the infographic.
Nature can improve health and well-being. These are infographics that are actually extremely evidence based.
You see little subscript superscript here that actually show you in Little microscopic print the research that we use to develop these infographics. You can download these and print these in color. Take them to know people that you are trying to convince, essentially, of the need to do outdoor learning, or the need to create more parks in your, your community, et cetera. So I invite you to explore all of those resources on Children and Nature Network website.
The last resource that I want to show you is the research library, and particularly if you are here as a practitioner, professional, and a professional role. But even if you’re here as a parent, I hope that this might be helpful to you, to understand what we know from the research, to find no evidence for changing the way that you do your practice or your teaching. And I’ll just show you the way that this works. I clicked on research library to get here.
And first of all, let me mention, that we put out a monthly research digest where we concentrate on a theme. We did one in the fall that was about mental health and other one about physical health.
We’re doing all sorts of different themes about returning to school in the age of covert technological use in nature or how technology might be a barrier to getting into nature.
So every month we, we pulled together maybe 15 or so articles to essentially describe, what do we know based on the research, so you can sign up here on this website to receive that digest.
I know that there are some folks who, in their teachers, or, know, a set of social workers, and a practice, who get that research digest. And they have a little mini staff meeting and talk about, well, what does this research mean for us as their relevance here to to what we do with children in our practice, or our work?
But, you can also come to the research library and say, hey, you know, I’m really interested in how nature supports early childhood, um, let’s just say executive function.
So, you can come here, and you can say, I’m interested in toddler’s, or, let’s just say, early childhood.
And I’m interested in how, let’s say, nature, preschool supports, I’m going to say.
Hopefully, I’ll come up with something here.
Let’s do emotional regulation.
And then I’m going to click Search.
And, this is going to hopefully give us a set of articles that, so, for that specific set of search criteria, we have four summaries of research in our database. You click on one of these. And it provides for you about a 500 word summary, which is about 2 to 3 times longer than what it would be summarized in the abstract of a research study, and should be a place where you can get almost everything you need to know about a study without having to actually access the study itself. But, if you wanted to access the study itself, we do provide the reference. And if it is open access, you can click on the DOI here, it’ll take you to the study itself, or to the Journal’s website.
Unfortunately, we can’t help it if you are behind a paywall, but we provide access to the, the, the article itself, if it is open access. So I’m going to stop sharing my screen now, and I am going to open it up for questions and discussion.
And I really hope that we get a chance to do a little bit of I know it’s not a conversation, per se, because you are asking questions in your question function, but I do want to make sure to address some of the things that you are particularly interested.
So, I tried to save lots of room for the end to address your specific issues and the roles that you are playing. So, Kelly, Breanna do we have some questions that can launch us?
Or so, what types of activities would you recommend for children to connect with nature?
So I think it’s really dependent on the age, and so let’s talk about this in sort of a developmental trajectory sort of way. You can start connecting babies to nature. I have a colleague, a developmental psychologist who she had this great idea that babies who are laying on their bellies are able to sit if you take one of those.
You know those rings that, you toss them into the pool, and they sink, and you have to dive down and get it. It’s just, it’s just like the size of a dinner plate.
If you put that on the ground, in a place, that might be a little interesting. It’s got some grass. It might have a dandelion.
It might have, you know, an ant or something.
And you just know, talk to the baby in a way that focuses their attention on what’s happening inside that ring.
The baby is fascinated by that. They are touching they’re using all of their senses. They might try to put something in their mouth.
You might have to watch out for that, but that is their universe, and directing their attention to that, which is immediately in front of them, can really spur cognitive development. It can stimulate all the senses and it can create a sense of wonder. Even just picking blades of grass, you know, as a, as an infant, is connecting kids to nature, in a way, because they are having a little bit of an awe and fascination experience. And that’s really what underlies connecting kids to nature.
As kids get older course their spheres increase, it becomes their backyard. It becomes their neighborhood.
either with the parents or as they get older, exploring more on their own and finding places where kids can go to with the parent or exploring on their own. That might just be a little pocket in nature down the street.
It might be, you know, somebody’s median garden and there might be rules around, don’t pick the flowers and stuff like that but but really, you know, spending some time talking about, What are these, these flowers, Oh look there’s there’s some bees. What’s the role of bees in pollinating our flowers? Why is that important? Aren’t these pretty colors on, some of them will be dying, some of them will be, you know, budding out.
There’s just a lot that you can talk about on a little nature, walk, you know, in the neighborhood.
I think, as kids get older and much more independent, sending them to programming, that is, nature based, Whether it be afterschool sorts of activities, you know, camp experiences in the summer, The more nature based, The more challenge, focused, appropriate, risk, appropriate challenge, challenge by choice I talked about earlier, those are important ways to connect kids to nature, who are, at least late elementary, through, through adolescence.
Even when it’s uncomfortable, kids are getting connected to nature in that type two fun sort of way. You know, as I mentioned, my, my son’s trip was uncomfortable buggy, cold. Windy, sometimes miserable. They were they were hungry. But it was, you know, in hindsight God, the best thing I ever did, you know kind of thing. So think about it.
You know, developmentally think about the role of you as a parent in supporting the child’s connecting to nature, starting small, bigger, and bigger, and eventually more and more independent. And you might also think about your choices in choosing a school.
Um, how does that school think about exposure to nature? Do they integrate nature based learning into their curriculum? Do they think of it, unfortunately, only as a luxury, that we only do that when we have time? Or if the kids are being good? I think it’s really important to look for schools where they understand nature as a tool, A co teacher across the academic disciplines, and as a way to support the whole child development.
So, there’s, there are a few ideas that, sort of, span the, the parent role at various ages.
Can you give us some more examples of incorporating nature based learning into different academic classes, like at the middle school level?
Sure, I’ll use an example from my own children’s middle school.
They had a practice of every month, all year round, didn’t matter what the weather was.
The entire middle school would go to what’s called Crosbie Farm, which is a park along the Mississippi River, is floodplain, and has some other Oak Savannah, some other other biomes, and it’s also right at the confluence of the Mississippi River in the Minnesota River.
This is an incredibly rich geographic area, and a really ripe educational tool for all sorts of different subject matter.
So, I’ll just tell you some stories on, at the beginning of the year, they would all go to their crosbie pharm outing. They would each be assigned a 10 foot by 10 foot plot.
That plot might have elevation to it. It might be on a slope. It might not.
It might also, perhaps, be not quite square. Maybe it was, you know, a parallelogram, or something like that.
They would use that opportunity to teach geometry.
They would use survey instruments, they would calculate the area on either the, you know, side-by-side, but sometimes the kids were also calculating essentially a three-dimensional, you know, a volume.
Because of the slope, they would do things like, on, plot out a piece of that count the deer scat **** in that area, and calculate extrapolate to what does that mean for the population of deer in this particular area. So they were diving into science and, you know, sort of the natural resources and epidemiology of the wildlife at Crosbie Farm.
They would spend time at the confluence of those two rivers, and they would take samples of water, and the Minnesota River is a totally different water sample than the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River turbidity, it’s kinda like how cloudy it is. It will look clear the message. The Minnesota River is very cloudy and that tells a story about what’s happening upstream. Agriculture is along the Minnesota River in a way that brings fertilizer and sort of an overly nutrient rich set of debris into the Minnesota River. And it clouds up, it creates a lot of sediment, and you can see it from an airplane. It’s like brown, meets blue. It’s like it comes together in this very striking way, in an aerial photograph or from an airplane, and so the science teacher will, you know, talk about, you know, what is turbidity?
How do you do, you know, water sampling? What else can we learn from these water samples? What kind of organisms are in here is one or more biodiverse, more in rich environment for biodiversity than the other one?
The humanities teacher would then come into that and talk about what else do we know about this spot at the confluence as well as what happens upstream? There’s industry, there’s agriculture that tells a story about how Minnesota was settled and what’s what happened where in the state. The confluence itself is a sacred site of the Dakota Indian tribes and lots of interesting stuff happened here good and bad at the confluence. It was a site of a rebellion.
It was the site of Fort Snelling, where Indians were essentially held against their will, but it also is a story of amazing Native American practices. This is where Native American women would come to give birth because it was a sacred place.
There’s just an incredibly rich, cultural history there, that is the story of settling Minnesota and has current day implications for our relationships with the Native American communities, Social justice, environmental justice. There’s climate, there’s things you can talk about about climate change, You can bring almost anything into the story of the confluence of the Minnesota, and the Mississippi River.
Art would also be done in ways that were culturally relevant or were about the spots that, you know, something about the story, that they were learning on either the scientific story, or the cultural story that they were learning about Crosby for farmer about the confluence of the two rivers.
They would do art in, with nature, they would do Andrew Goldsworthy, no art, structures, you know, that kind of thing.
They would use snow and ice out on the river to build sculptures and patterns in the snow. And ice and I I.
That they would have a spot that they would sit and journal and read, Nature Based Literature, or whatever the theme was, you know, for that day. So it was this really amazing experience of, you know, all the teachers coming together to create an interdisciplinary, you know, across the academic disciplines, sort of experience for these middle schoolers, but, you know, you can even extend that downward. The younger kids could do that, too. Just in a little bit different ways, and I’m, I’m happy to give more details about ideas at younger ages, if that’s helpful.
I’m not sure who asked the question and what your, what hat you’re wearing and what your specific interests.
Wow, You give a lot and I’m going to tell you really passionate about this and I can talk about this for for a long time.
It also reminds me, as I was very lucky in the school, in the area, where I grew up, where major was simply just a part of everything that we write down Arbor day. Where we would plant a new tree every year, and you can see the trees growing in the school yard, as you know from the beginning.
So what do you observe in children playing in nature that says something about their emotional state at the time?
Yeah. That’s a great point. That it’s a great question.
So, I think when we talk about those state changes, we’re talking about activation. Like, are you stressed or are you relaxed?
And we’re also talking about focus.
Are you engaged in something or are you distracted and kind of disconnected from the world?
And I think what we see with kids who are really engaging in a nature based experience, their attention is engaged, their emotions are engaged, they are sometimes in what’s called flow state of really just being absorbed, they don’t even have to try to focus.
They are just really, you know, sort of zeroed in on that and enjoying what they do, Time just passes without them even knowing it. They may even have trouble.
You know, knowing when they’re supposed to, you know, move on to a different task or they’re surprised when it’s time to go back inside what we just got here, you know.
But, in fact, they were, you know, so engaged in what they were doing in our half hour, 45 minutes went by.
The, on that state of activation, emotional activation, I think you see that through the sense of relaxation, a comfort level, smiles, you know, positive effect, co-operation, positive interactions with their peers. Just enjoying, you know what they’re doing, it might be activation in a good way, like exuberance, you know, Oh, my God, look at that. Come over here. You know, everybody look at what I found, you know, kind of thing. So, you know, you can tell as a parent, as a teacher, when, when kids are enjoying what they’re doing.
And sometimes we think of fun is just sort of like a side effect but fun actually.
And that that sort of an engagement with joy is really important in attitudes towards school and learning.
And building that connectedness to nature.
And I think actual learning, you know, it’s, it’s that engagement factor that really makes it fun and in personally relevant. And that makes things stick. You know, for kids, they, they retain things better when they’re engaged in that way. That feels personally relevant to them.
As a parent, how can I keep my child engaged outside when they are anxious about bugs and dirt Can hmm, hmm, hmm.
No, I think it’s, it’s a couple of things. one is, we need to be really good role models. As parents. Even when we don’t like bugs and dirt, we can’t really show that.
We don’t like …, or We have to kind of embrace that, you know, from a young age, not just allowing play in dirt, but, you know, encouraging.
Getting in there and getting your hands dirty, and seeing, seeing what there is to explore on, so attitudes, transfer, from parent to child, parents will pick up, or, I’m sorry, kids will pick up on even a little bit of disgust. So we have to kinda throw our ourselves as parents, Intuit’s, and show that we really think that this is interesting and it’s OK.
And then, you know, model, model, connection, model, engagement, point out the things that you are noticing.
Is it really, what does this by doing, you know? Wow, that Ant is carrying something three times as big as its body, that is pretty amazing. I wonder why it can do that. I wonder what it’s trying to do, where’s it going? Let’s follow it and see where it goes. So, you know, really kind of helping the child see this as something that could actually be kind of interesting.
And, if that starts to pique their interest, follow up on that a little bit. You know, is there a book about dance that we could read that might, you know, explain? Some of the things we saw? Why can and antiquaries something that’s three times as big as its body, you know, that kind of thing.
So, it’s a combination of kind of showing your own emotional engagement. Not just allowing, but encouraging, you know, the messy play.
And reading your child’s cues about both comfort level and maybe a little bit of piqued interest and sort of capitalizing on that.
But it’s also about sensitization start small.
You know, don’t, don’t go into the big end and decide, Oh, we’re, no, we’re gonna go catch snakes or dig up worms or something. When that would just be like, oh wait, no, no, no, You, know, start small, and build up, you know, to something like that, start with sand, that isn’t so dirty. Go to dirt then, go to mud, You know, something like that.
And then read when your child is just had enough, you know, it’s better to leave them curious, or even wanting a little bit more than to reach a point where they’re like, like, OK, now this is, I’m done, and this is no longer fun anymore. You know? They’re not gonna wanna go back out, do it again next time. So, so, try to get out 10 minutes before the Meltdown as opposed to 10 minutes after the meltdown. That was always my role as a parent.
I can tell you about cross there’s some term. Yeah.
Well, as a kid, I went searching for them my My nephews, no, no, no, wait. So, how do you feel physically or mentally when you spend time out nature?
So, I think, um, know, of course, physical health and mental health and physical states and mental states are not two totally separate things. They are very inter active mind body connection, But, when we are outdoors, we are typically more physically active. That is, of course, good for our bodies. You know, builds our fitness, and our strength, that builds our cardiac arrest, or cardiac function and our respiratory function. It helps us manage weight and blood sugar levels as adults. You know, for example, but it also impacts our mental health.
You know, the more that we are physically active, the better we manage stress, the less anxious we feel, our mood elevates, we tend to have less depression. When we are physically inactive, active in nature, we will emerge from that in a state of feeling more positive emotion.
So those two things really, you know, go hand in hand, so will feel like we are getting some good exercise. And we will feel uplifted, you know, in some way.
And on we may feel less stressed as a result of getting out some of that, you know, kind of nervous energy you can also do the opposite, though, just chilling you know, in nature, lie on your back and look up at the clouds and the trees. And that’s another, you know, sensation that has both a physical and a mental, no sort of expression, I think, you feel the deep relaxation in your body.
when you really allow yourself to just no totally be absorbed by what you see, what you hear, what you smell, what you feel under your, the soles of your feet or your fingertips. That is a physical sensation. But you also mentally and emotionally can experience that.
Decreased stress, you might observe it as breathing has slowed down, or I’m almost feeling a little bit sleepy. I just want to close my eyes, or.
I’m just sort of feeling a little bit blissed out, you know, kind of thing.
So, you can get the both physical and mental health benefits from active, active, engagement in nature, and you can also get a different set of physical and mental health benefits by just really calm, um, fascination, you know, just looking at what’s around you and relaxing.
Um, or do you think boosts?
Children’s intelligence level by being out in the in nature?
Is it, just by sheer interests of, um, we’ll talk about Birds touch, you may be getting into birding. Yeah.
No, I think the research on intelligence and nature is so new that it’s not at the stage where it’s looking at mechanisms yet that kind of comes a little bit later. Research tends to start with no. Is this associated with this? And then does this cause this? And then why does that cause that?
So we don’t know yet, but I’ll just hypothesize a little bit. I think part of it is that it is a healthy environment. Greener environments have, for instance, less air pollution. Air pollution does contribute to both physical health, mental health, and overall, you know, healthy development, including brain function. So, that could be, you know, part of it.
So, it’s a really, you know, down to the physical, you know, health of the body. It could have to do with the stress, you know, we talked about before that for a school study where, you know, being outdoors learning outdoors leads to healthier stress profile, which likely opens a child up to learning more.
And, you know, we we make it a little bit of an artificial or art, a problematic separation between intelligence, which is supposed to be independent of teaching and academic achievement. But, in fact, I think they really are hand in hand. And particularly, intelligence tests do actually measure things that we have learned through teaching, as well as things that are a little bit more in age.
So, I think, when we are taught in ways that are nature based, we are, um, impacting how we do on intelligence tests because we are learning things in a different way. Not necessarily because the brain has, you know, structurally changed. So I think I think it’s nature and nurture, essentially, if we want to call it that.
But I’m, I’m super excited to see what happens with this research. I think we’re gonna see everything from air pollution and better immune function, and, you know, better mental health, better physical health.
And then what’s the impact of actually learning through nature that’s the sort of nurture part, so to speak, that will be impactful, too, because when we when we learn outdoors. We are using typically a pedagogy that is particularly effective, it’s active, it’s inquiry based, it tends to be social and collaborative. It’s very stimulating of all the senses, you know, that sort of thing. It is sort of the best practice for overall healthy development, including intellectual and cognitive development.
OK, lastly, What do you think are the benefits of taking risks? some some risks in nature?
Yeah, so, um?
Taking risks can happen at any age. You know, maybe it’s the preschooler who is trying to figure out, can I use these stepping stones to get across this little stream? Maybe it’s a set of middle school kids, figuring out how high can we climb in this tree. Maybe it’s the teenagers on a wilderness adventure trip, figuring out, how are we going across, you know, this river, you know, kind of thing, on, in any case?
It is a, it challenges you to think about What do I know about myself?
What, what can I do? What shouldn’t I do? I’m going to slow myself down and think this through.
If I think I can do it, but I’m a little bit scared, how can I take a little step and see if that works out? Then take the next step, see if that works out.
If I fail, what did I learn from that?
I learned maybe how to do it better next time, I might have learned, Whoa, that’s my limit. I learned something about what I can and can’t do. That’s super important. It’s about that sense of achievement and self efficacy having confidence in your skills. So it’s, it’s that kind of test your mental, you know, kind of adage.
And all of the benefits that come from just pushing yourself a little bit to see what you can and can’t do and what you learn from that. And so, reflecting on those experiences of success and failure, so to speak, in challenge situations or risk situations is part of the reason why challenge or risk is particularly effective. Making sense of it and incorporating it into your understanding of yourself, really sort of brings at home, brings the lessons home.
Oh, well, doctor Jordan, thank you so much for your talk tonight. I really appreciate it, and I think that there’s a lot of things that we’ve learned. Thank you all for joining our webinar on the Nature Connection for Children’s Mental Health.
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Was doctor Anna Urbaniak.
This ends tonight’s webinar. Thank you, doctor Jordan, for your presentation. Thank you.
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