A soft breeze graces against our skin, birds chirp happily in the tree tops and the sweet smell of a magnolia tree perfumes the air around us. Many of us recall distinctive sensory memories from our time outdoors and nature poses a feast for the senses. Visual stimuli abound: greenery of all shapes and sizes, leaves garnished with edges from smooth to jagged, and an array of characters from pale brown squirrels to vermillion insects. Nature invigorates and nurtures all of our senses: visual, auditory, tactile and olfactory.
Nature offers a lot more to us than just sensory memories, however. Children around us often serve as a reminder of how enticing nature can be. Many teachers and parents can speak to how many times “Can we go outside?” has punctuated a topic at hand.
This is for good reason: nature offers a learning environment that is engaging while remaining calming and restorative. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have conducted several studies that indicate time spent outdoors can have a positive effect on reducing the symptoms of ADHD in students ages 5 to 18 across gender and socioeconomic statuses. This evidence was also observed in both a nationwide study and a preliminary study whereby students were monitored for cognitive challenges before and after a walk.
It seems that nature offers something analogous to a holistic reset button, an effortless way to experience calm and effective attention restoration. These therapeutic effects within nature may even have beneficial effects yet to be explored, including components such as reduced levels of domestic violence within the home and positive uplift for cancer patients. Many would argue that these therapeutics effects are important to note in an increasingly stress-inducing, medicating world.
“Well, what about in winter?” The results are even more striking. The therapeutic effects of nature can be at work literally through a window view. Besides gardening, hiking, and walking outdoors, we can still receive nature’s perks by simply looking outside to a natural view. Many natural changes are impressive and breathtaking to witness, and as an added bonus, these benefits are cost-effective and increase support and appreciation for the environment.
How do we cultivate a system for beating the winter blues, homework blues, or “need a moment” blues? Pursuing a course of nature perks can be simple, elegant and personalized in a way meaningful to an adult, family or child. Here are some suggestions:
Begin a nature journal: Use it to press leaves or wildflowers, describe nature observations and practice nature poetry.
Dabble into the world of field guides: birds, trees, wildflowers, edible plants, medicinal plants… name it and there is a field guide that educates on the topic. These are simple, inexpensive and easily available online or in a local bookstore.
Go on a nature walk: Make family time in nature. Have kids collect artifacts from their walk (leaves, pinecones, flowers, etc.) and help them to identify what they found. For kinesthetic learners , have them act out a skit of their favorite nature walk moment.
Create a monthly nature goal: Consider a nature-inspired family trip, new walk route, nature photography collage or intention to make homework breaks “outdoor” breaks. This is a great way to capitalize on diverse family interests and talents.
Cultivating time to look, react to and document what is happening in the natural world is an important role to be reinforced. Without being aware of the subtle peace and beauty within our natural landscape, much understanding of where our food comes from or what is so precious about our natural landscape will be lost to generations raised indoors.
From solar panels to beautiful gardens and biodiesel, people need to pay attention to their natural surroundings in order to fully appreciate all the complexity our environmental world can and should offer. Look to the kids asking to go outside or romping in a nearby park and remember that nature is the best teacher.
-Julie Ann Howlett is an Illinois-based educator and nature enthusiast offering educational services that promote environmental respect, holistic understandings, and compassion for your educational journey. Sign up for her e-newsletter with JAHLearning@gmail.com or visit JulieAnnHowlettConsulting.com.
This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Natural Awakenings Chicago