Being outside and among trees is proven to be beneficial for physical, emotional and mental wellbeing
It was just a dead bird lying on the ground on school property. But for one student struggling with reading, writing and processing information quickly, and for whom school felt especially hard, it was something special. And she would have missed it if she hadn’t been outside among the “secret bushes” that day.
Brenda Bradley, a planning time teacher for kindergarten at Mary Johnston PS in Waterloo, Ontario, headed over with a trowel, intending to move the dead bird out of sight before the other kids saw it.
Bradley’s students have needs ranging from English as a second language, Autism Spectrum Disorder and safety plans, to anxiety and communication challenges. Twice a week, her students engage in role-playing games and explorations, and her learning environments includes her modified version of forest school. She often takes the children to an area on school property with mature trees, a circle of evergreens, lots of grass and a special spot that she calls “the secret bushes.” The dead bird proved to be just one moment among many vibrant learning opportunities she has observed with her students while they are learning and exploring outside together.
“A few other students joined us. When I began to scoop up the bird, the first student said, ‘Wait. I want them to see how beautiful it is.’ So, we knelt, and the girl described what she saw – how small the bird was, the colour of the feathers on its head, the way its legs bent, how it looked ‘quiet,’” Bradley says.
The student asked her teacher if she would dig a hole for it, and her classmates gathered flowers; she found popsicle sticks to make a fence.
“I asked her if she wanted to say something, before I put the bird in the hole,” Bradley says. “She said something like, ‘I’m sorry that you died, birdie, but you are beautiful and perfect, and I hope you like these flowers.’ The rest of us were crying at this point, but she looked totally at ease – sad, but in a beautiful way, the centre of attention not because of what she couldn't do, but for what she cared about.”
After sitting in natural surroundings, the subjects showed a 12.4 per cent decrease in cortisol level and a 5.8 per cent decrease in heart rate, compared with those in an urban control group."
From forest schools and outdoor education programs, to a practice called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, being outside and among trees is proven to be beneficial for physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. In forest school programs, children spend most of the day outdoors in a natural environment. As individual practice, shinrin-yoku is mindfulness in a forest; the individual can experience all the benefits of the forest while solely and mindfully being among trees.
Rob Klea, a forest therapist, says being among trees has great benefits, whether it’s for recreation, spirituality or education. A retired teacher, he works mostly with educators, but also with traumatized children and youth.
“If (the kids) have been traumatized in an outdoor setting, such as an accident or attack, they also need a therapist or supervision while engaging in forest therapy, to ensure their safety and to address mental health needs that arise,” he says. “People with organic mental health issues are better for being outside, but being in nature won’t replace medication to address their fundamental illness.”
The Japanese study published by Miyazaki, Ikei and Song in 2014 involved 420 subjects at 35 different forests throughout Japan. After sitting in natural surroundings, the subjects showed a 12.4 per cent decrease in cortisol level and a 5.8 per cent decrease in heart rate, compared with those in an urban control group.
According to UNICEF’s 2016 report card, Canadian children are among the unhappiest in the world. One of the reasons for this, indicates a 2018 study conducted by ParticipACTION, is because they spend less than two hours a day outside.
Klea notes that the element of risk, which develops the sensory integration system, has all but disappeared from everyday functioning. Helicopter parenting – protecting children from real and imagined risks – has contributed to kids staying indoors. Add screens into the mix, and, given that adults now spend 93 per cent of their day indoors or in a vehicle, it is easy to see why our children are not spending time outdoors.
“There is an element of risk outdoors. It’s a critical component to the integrative sensory system, which helps with self-regulation,” says Klea. “It wasn’t until the internet that we saw a shift to not wanting to be outside. We have attention fatigue. We’re burnt out, and we’ve exhausted our batteries for directed attention.”
Late last fall, fifteen Grade Six children, their French immersion teacher, Ryder Ball, and two parent supervisors readied themselves in a warm classroom at Suddaby Public School in Kitchener, for a 1.2-kilometre walk to Woodside National Park. The children spent most of the day in the forest and around the grounds of the historic site, doing observation activities, writing, sketching and conducting a scavenger hunt.
“It’s hard to find a forest close to the school to go to,” Ball says. “Once you add in a bus and programming, the costs go up.”
She says she tries to get her students outside for a day in the woods at least two times a year. Her observations of her classes indicate that directed activities in the forest better serve some children.
Being outside gives kids with behavioural issues a chance to be active on a large scale."
“Last year, we were able to have time to just be in the space. Many of the students seemed to enjoy this time and became quite relaxed,” she remembers. “Others had a harder time, needing to move or struggling emotionally with the quiet reflection.”
Ball says she also has plants and pictures of nature in the class, and sometimes brings in objects from nature – parts of trees from the ground, leaves and other natural objects – for activities, discussion and research.
Bradley says for kids on the spectrum who want to play by themselves, being in the classroom has limitations.
“They need to interact, compromise and be social all day. It’s exhausting for them and sometimes causes anxiety or violence. Outdoors, there is space to go, to just be. They can return to a favourite spot or activity week after week, and they can exist in their own world for a little bit of time,” she says, adding one of her identified students gets a magnifying glass every time, and heads into the bushes to look closely at branches. “In the heat, wind, winter, he checks things out. For a month last fall, he was checking in on a 'gooey blob' on a branch.”
The engagement is beneficial for everyone, she adds, “It helps peers to see their classmate at their best -- at ease, engaged, not anxious.”
Bradley says being outside gives kids with behavioural issues a chance to be active on a large scale.
“Their movements don't knock over someone's tower or their tapping or humming isn't noticed because of the wind in the leaves. It also puts their energy to good use,” she says, recounting the story of one class who decided to make a mud pit with buckets of water brought from the water spout to a hole they had dug.
“They asked their classmate – who was often destructive, usually in everyone's personal space, generally not easy to be around – to be their 'water getter.' So, get water he did. Bucket after bucket, he ran to the tap, filled up, and sloshed his way to the hole, emptied his bucket and ran back to get more water,” she says.
A classmate noticed he was running and came, out of habit, to 'tell.' Bradley says she asked the student, “What else do you notice?” The observations were astute.
“‘He looks . . . happy.’ A pause . . . ‘And he's . . . helping,’” she says. “I was thankful, once again, that I got to take these kids outside.”
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