By Sylvia King (she/her), teacher, West Vancouver
As teachers, we help to support the young people in our lives by creating caring and compassionate learning environments and educating students about their physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being. Interacting with nature can improve a wide range of well-being facets, and if we want to stay connected with each other and support the physiological and psychological well-being of our students, we can look to nature to help us nurture.
In BC, the First Peoples Principles of Learning teach us that learning is holistic and is focused on connectedness and a sense of place. Connection to nature and the land as part of living and learning supports the theory that there is an innate human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings.1 Nature is restorative and is associated with emotional well-being. However, children spend much of their time indoors away from the natural environment, which can lead to a disconnect with nature and exacerbate challenges with behaviour and emotional regulation. Spending time in nature helps to improve emotional functioning and influences human stress response by decreasing blood pressure, reducing cortisol levels, and improving immune function. Providing students with opportunities to connect with nature is associated with shifts in perseverance, problem-solving, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, and resilience.2 And the positive influence of nature is consistent across diverse student populations, academic subjects, nature settings, and lesson designs.
Availability and accessibility to nature differs between individuals and school settings, however, opening the door, or even the window, to bring nature inside the classroom can help to facilitate the path to connection. Finding the path to nature requires a shift in thinking that the learning space is limited to a brick-and-mortar environment. To begin this journey, teachers are invited to consider their own relationship with nature and where their comfort lies with bringing students outside. Nature is all around us: from the weather, to the ants that crawl around on the ground, to the dandelions that have pushed through the cracks in the sidewalks. Recognizing this helps to forge the path to connection and brings awareness to where we find nature. Having contact and recognizing beauty in nature are pathways for improving nature connectedness, and are more powerful than knowledge-based activities in engaging people with nature.3 This means that increasing nature connectedness does not require experience, ecological knowledge, or vigorous exercise, but rather an open mind and a willingness to be outside and engage.
Being with nature provides the opportunity for students to understand themselves as part of nature and opens the context for learning. As such, nature-based learning ultimately strengthens the well-being of the self, the family, the community, the land, the spirits, and the ancestors.4 Practices such as “walk and notice” or “sit and notice” invite participants to consistently walk or sit in the same spot throughout the year to notice the beauty, and develop gratitude and appreciation for the changes that happen in that place. The sounds, patterns, shapes, and numbers that nature offers create opportunities for students to see real-life applications of concepts traditionally taught in classrooms. Strategies for connecting with nature can begin with finding opportunities to move instruction and learning outside: a PHE lesson from the gym to the field, math from desks to the playground, or reading a story from the carpet to the courtyard. Shifts to include outdoor environments as learning spaces allows for experiential learning in authentic settings where learning is carried out in real-world contexts.5
Being with nature helps humans to be reminded about our sense of place and connectedness to the land. This engagement with nature also helps give students the ability to engage with one another and form connections with their peers. Nature-based learning supports a universal design approach to learning, and is tied to improving students’ attention, self-discipline, interest, and enjoyment of learning.6
In addition, learning in nature helps with group functioning of a class, as it can bridge sociocultural differences between students and can minimize interpersonal barriers, such as personality conflicts between students. Learning outside a classroom setting facilitates co-operation and increased comfort and connectedness between students and teachers. It helps to reinforce that teachers are partners in learning. As we begin a new school year and navigate an increasingly complex world, nature reminds us of the beauty and connectedness that exists on our Earth and helps us to feel grounded and connected with one another and ourselves.
1 Ryan Lumber, et al., “Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection,” PLOS ONE, Vol. 12, No. 5, 2017: www.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177186
2 Colin Capaldi, et al., “Flourishing in nature: A review of the benefits of connecting with nature and its application as a wellbeing intervention,” International Journal of Wellbeing, Vol. 5, No. 4, 2015, p. 1–16: www.doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v5i4.449
3 Ryan Lumber, et al., “Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection,” PLOS ONE, Vol. 12, No. 5, 2017: www.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177186
4 “First Peoples Principles of Learning,” First Nations Education Steering Committee, 2006: www.fnesc.ca/first-peoples-principles-of-learning
5 Orla Kelly, et al., “Universal Design for Learning - A Framework for inclusion in outdoor learning,” Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2022, p. 75–89: www.doi.org/10.1007/s42322-022-00096-z
6 Ming Kuo, et al., “Do experiences with nature promote learning? Converging evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship,” Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 10: www.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305