The more our children connect with the natural world, the better equipped they will be to protect, says Sarah Watkins…
As children increasingly spend less time outdoors, anxiety and depression are on the rise, with more young people than ever overwhelmed and struggling to cope. This is not a coincidence. Studies show that even short periods of ‘green time’ can help reduce anxiety, boost the immune system, and improve concentration and emotional coping skills.
Sensory dysfunction, often presenting as difficulties with core strength, movement, balance and eyesight, continues to be a problem for children around the world – yet we know that wild spaces provide the sensory experiences they need to thrive.
It’s clear, then, that building a connection with nature helps children stay healthy and happy - but could it also help revitalise the planet?
40 years ago, biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the phrase biophilia - love of nature - and suggested that we’re drawn to nature because we depend on it for survival. Research shows that if children develop a close relationship with the natural world, they’re more likely to protect it.
Climate anxiety is becoming more prevalent, even among very young children, and it’s easy to feel powerless. One way to combat this is to help youngsters develop an understanding of how they are a vital part of the ecosystem, and that their choices and decisions can still make a difference.
So how can we support our charges to build a personal relationship with the natural world and develop an appreciation of what sustains us?
Nature’s patterns and cycles tell an important story, and children need to experience the changes in a space through the different seasons. Little ones tend to know every stone and bush in their own outdoor space, and the act of noticing falling leaves, the return of migrating birds or frost on spiderwebs, restores their connection with the natural world.
Physically experiencing rain, snow, wind and sunshine is a crucial sensory experience. Tree: Seasons Come, Seasons Go by Patricia Hegarty and Britta Teckentrup is a beautiful picture book that elicits healthy discussion on seasonal changes.
Studies show that being responsible for something that is alive gives us purpose and improves our self-worth. By giving children responsibility for planting, nurturing and harvesting plants such as peas, potatoes and salad, they feel capable and trusted.
Herbs are easy to grow and maintain and add a sensory dimension to the play space. Mint, in particular, can boost the immune system and reduce cortisol. Making plant labels teaches children the names of different plants.
Welcoming minibeasts, birds and animals into the outside space enables children to observe creatures carefully. Building a minibeast hotel can be a great team activity, using recycled materials such as wooden pallets and flower pots.
Ice bird feeders are a wonderful winter project that will attract robins and other winter birds. Using a large plant saucer, you can create an effective bird bath that can be sited in a quiet spot away from predators.
Hedgehogs are in decline and are listed as ‘vulnerable.’ Many of their habitats have been destroyed. Using old bricks and wood, you can construct an effective hedgehog house. Buy second hand guides to British animals and plants from the charity shop and put these outside to prompt discussion of names.
To encourage children to see beyond the superficial, make magnifying glasses and bug hunters available outside. Support youngsters to put a hoop over a patch of grass and examine the myriad of minibeasts found in this one small space.
A sound map can help children to identify the natural sounds around them. Give them a piece of card and a pen and encourage them to draw the sounds they can hear in different areas outside.
Connecting with fire, earth, air and water is a great way to build an appreciation of the natural world. Children are always transfixed by flames and a campfire can be a calming experience.
Tie an old sheet to your fencing and support children to paint with mud, getting connected to the earth. Hang strips of fabric from branches to flutter in the air; and never miss an opportunity for puddle jumping!
Support the children to find their own special spot outside and get comfortable there. Ask them to breathe deeply and think about what they can see, feel, hear and smell. Revisit this spot in different weathers and seasons.
Sarah Watkins is a Reception teacher at Ledbury Primary.
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