Earth Day is just around the corner and with it, the reminder to take stock of our place on the planet, commit to taking action to protect it, and promise to heal the damage humans have caused on it. Although the need to consider the scale of environmental degradation and our role in addressing damage already done is certainly important, I’m leaning into a different message this year. More specifically, I’m promoting a “daily dose” of nature–for myself, the teachers I work with, and, of course, their students.
School gardens make it easy to immerse ourselves in nature. As Nathan Larson points out in Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education, “Numerous studies have shown the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of time spent in natural environments” (p. 29). He recommends inviting students to select a “sit spot” and spend an extended period of time observing what’s happening nearby.
I recently did this in my front yard, where I noticed an abundance of ladybug activity. I’ve been cultivating a ladybug population for several years and my “lazy” gardening has paid off. In one three-minute sit, I found nearly three dozen pupae. Noticing led to questions, while counting sustained my attention. What’s more, ladybug life cycles (and their complex relationship with aphids) make an excellent phenomenon for NGSS-focused unit of study.
According to some experts, the magic number is just 20 minutes. Not sure what to have students do? Generation Wild offers a list (in English or Spanish) for how to spend more time outside to reduce stress and boost an overall sense of wellbeing. One simple idea is to go on a rainbow hunt. This is especially fun when using paint chips from the hardware store (see this post from Life Lab for a description of the activity). Students develop their sensory observation skills when they spend time outdoors.
In addition, they’re bound to see something AWEsome. As science journalist, Florence Williams, asserts, awe makes us “feel more connected to other people, as the world around us.” Williams is the author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Healthier, Happier, and More Creative, which explores the evidence that supports our need for nature and argues for routine access to the outdoors. (I read about her in an article in Flora: California’s Plants, People, Places).
One final point both Larson and Willams make is that immersing ourselves in nature need not be monumental. ‘Nearby’ nature is just as beneficial, especially for those living in urban spaces. Yards or parks are far more accessible than mountains or forests. A school garden is a readily available retreat, one that can have a tremendous influence on kids'(and teachers’) minds, bodies, and spirits.
As you prepare to celebrate Earth Day this year, reflect on how you can fit a daily dose of nature into your weekly schedule. Track any changes you notice in your mental, physical, spiritual health. Better yet, grab another person and boost the social benefit as well!
The WI School Garden Network offers copies of Teaching in Nature’s Classroom in both English and Spanish, free of charge!