This post is authored by Catherine Hubbard, Manager, Outdoor and Nature Programming | Camp Fire National Headquarters.
Earth Day falls every year on April 22. Founded in 1970, the original Earth Day is seen by many as the launch of the modern-day environmental movement. Its early focus was on pollution and its damaging impact on public health, drawing on the energy and activism of students to help inspire change.
April is also Stress Awareness month. And while nature alone is not a panacea for serious mental illness, emerging research tells us that time spent in nature has a positive effect on the mental and emotional well-being of youth. Nature experiences can soothe negative emotions, ease symptoms of ADHA, and reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders later in life. Nature-based experiences have also been shown to have positive benefits for youth encountering Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).
In a moment, we will explore some of the ways that nature supports the mental and emotional health of young people. It is useful, however, to begin with a basic understanding of nature. For this blog’s purposes, nature is defined as any safe, outdoor space with something green and growing on it. It can include, but is not limited to:
• Neighborhood parks
• Woods, prairies, fields, and meadows
• Ponds, streams, lakes, or beaches
• Rain and puddles
• Desert landscapes
• Rocky hills
• A playground with a single tree
• The sky overhead
• School gardens
• A dandelion in a sidewalk crack
• Snow, mud, grass, pine needles
• Any patch of land where something wild is determined to grow
Making Friends with Nature (Environmental Connection):
Environmental connection is the personal relationship each of us has with nature. Too often we mistake environmental connection with environmental literacy, which might mean learning about the life cycle of frogs or identifying the different parts of a tree. But knowing a lot about nature does not necessarily equate to feeling safe, curious, or engaged with nature. While the goal can certainly be increased eco-literacy, developing that knowledge is dependent on first experiencing joy, wonder, and affirmation in nature. (It is not particularly interesting to study the life cycle of frogs if you have never seen a frog.)
Many educators and youth workers admit to being unsure of the names of plants and animals. They do not feel equipped to teach natural science and therefore avoid going into nature with young people. Rather than offering a fully structured nature lesson, however, consider simply making friends with nature. While some knowledge is useful to assure safety (know how to avoid poison ivy, for example), you can still go outside with young people without needing an ecology degree. Playing in nature, reading books in nature, or sitting as a group outside, quietly looking and listening, is an excellent way to get your feet wet (literally and figuratively). The nature knowledge will follow, and will be driven ideally, not by the leaders, but by the young people themselves.
Making Friends with Nature should include:
- A range of outdoor activities, such as opportunities to design and build, climb, move, or sit quietly; and to engage with books, art materials, lose parts, and practical tools in an outdoor setting. This ensures that multiple emotional needs, moods, and interests are met.
- A range of spaces, including quiet areas for rest and open spaces for active movement.
- Opportunities to care for other living things: a garden, an herb box, worm bins, or bird feeders.
- The freedom for youth to choose activities. Leaders should provide youth opportunities to select their own activities within designated boundaries, which allows for autonomy and self-direction.
- Time: too often, young people are given fifteen-minute breaks to be outside as a pause from “real” learning (i.e., learning that takes place indoors and is dictated by adults). This viewpoint misses the deeply personal and powerful learning that takes place when nature is the classroom.
What are the outcomes of Environmental Connection?
- Connecting to nature helps youth develop and deepen empathy. Many young people who struggle socially connect to plants and animals before forming relationships with their peers.
- Connecting to nature can help youth who have language barriers find new ways to interact with others – they can build together, garden together, listen to bird calls together, without needing to converse with words.
- Connecting to nature, especially in loosely structured ways with plenty of time for independent exploration, nurtures young people with learning delays, autism spectrum disorder, challenges around sensory processing, or who simply may need a break from a tightly structured schedule.
- Connecting to nature can be incredibly healing for youth who have undergone trauma. Nature does not ask questions or judge us for our feelings. It simply allows us to be.
- Connecting to nature, especially among young people who have historically been denied access to nature, or who do not feel culturally welcomed into nature, can be extremely empowering.
Nature and SEL Skills:
Social development is a young person’s ability to engage with other people in positive and socially acceptable ways. Social expectations for youth, beginning as young as age three, include:
- Showing concern for the feelings of others
- Taking turns
- Playing and interacting cooperatively with peers
For several reasons, not all young people can easily meet these social expectations. Nature, however, can support educators as they work with young people on developing these skills, while still honoring youth for the individuals they are.
Nature likewise supports emotional development, particularly when the nature experiences are fun and engaging. Positive emotional development is vital to the well-being of youth, supporting the formation of lifelong, meaningful relationships with others and creating a sense of self-worth.
Here are a few powerful ways that nature supports the social and emotional development of youth:
- If a young person has strong emotions, being able to exert themselves physically outdoors can release some of those powerful feelings.
- Encountering wildlife can support mood regulation: if you want to see an animal in action, you must remain still and silent.
- Nature provides opportunities to control breathing: match your breath to the waves on the shore, breathe in sync with the wind in the trees, blow away soft handfuls of seeds. Deep breathing increases oxygen to the brain and calms the nervous system, making it easier to silence noisy thoughts.
- Nature provides challenges: climbing trees, crossing ice, hiking uphill. Conquering these challenges leads to greater confidence and pride in personal achievement
- Nature encourages youth to try. They need to push themselves to complete a hike or navigate unfamiliar terrain. They learn inner motivation and see that success is tied to persistence.
- Nature provides an abundance of materials (sticks, rocks, mud, water) so that there are fewer concerns over limited resources and less anxiety about missing out
- Nature is a wonderful venue for large-scale projects, such as creating a communal outdoor art mural, building a tree house, etc. Such projects require many people working together to be successful.
- Orienteering and Ropes Course activities promote social interaction and problem-solving skills.
- Eating snacks, listening to stories, and singing together around a campfire creates a sense of community and provides young people with a sense of belonging
- Hiking as a group – especially to novel places – can be a unifying experience.
- Difficult conversations, such as those that include emotion coaching, often feel emotionally safer when they take place in peaceful spots in nature.
- Having positive experiences in nature can reiterate to young people – especially those who tend toward anger, anxiety, and depression – that they are capable of joyful and peaceful feelings.
A Few Simple Ideas for Creating Social and Emotional Experiences in Nature:
- Explore water: Water can be very soothing. Dip nets, fingers, and feet into ponds, creeks, or tidal pools. If these things are not available, fill a variety of tubs with water and create your own outdoor water areas. Add scoops, bubbles, food coloring, flower petals, strainers, and more.
- Take watercolor paints outside. The resulting paintings dry quickly.
- Or use mud puddle water and simply paint with water on tree bark or rocks. The water will evaporate, but this is about process, not product.
- Conduct sink and float experiments. Which objects float, which sink? Make predictions and test your hypothesis
- Create nature scavenger hunts: look for red buds on trees, partially eaten seeds, nests, yellow flowers, spider webs, or anything else that is common to your area
- Build tiny “nature houses” out of loose materials (acorn caps, sticks, dried grass, mud, shells, driftwood, flowering weeds, seed pods, raffia, leaves, garden debris, etc.)
- Take tin and plastic dishes into nature and create “recipes” using pinecones, mud, woodchips, water, and other lose nature parts.
- Use field guides, bug boxes, binoculars, and nature ID apps to enhance your nature experiences.
- Sit in a circle on the grass or under a tree and pass a talking stick around.
- Fill bird feeders and monitor who visits
- Include quiet moments in nature: take yoga breaths, lay on the ground, write, draw, be silent.
- Begin or end your experiences in nature with a land acknowledgment, which you can co-create with the youth in your program, honoring the people on whose ancestral land you now stand.
- Build upon this acknowledgment over time by learning the names of a few plants or animals in the traditional language(s) of your region
- Make it a goal to introduce, in a joyful rather than didactic way, the principle of environmental reciprocity. This can include planting wildflowers and putting out bird seed to provide food for local animals; picking up trash from beaches and rivers; and only collecting things from nature that have come loose and are no longer attached to stems. Leave the nuts for the animals, taking only the inedible shells. And return everything back to nature after you have finished with them.
This April 2023, as we reflect on more than fifty years of Earth Day, it is important to remember that the health and well-being of today’s young people depends, in part, on fair and equitable access to nature. We must also remember that the health and well-being of the planet is going to require the energy and compassion of today’s young people. We have an obligation to connect the two. By so doing, we honor both.