It has been almost two months since I last took my class of first graders on a forest day. At our last outing back in early March, I sensed it would be the last time we’d all be together outdoors for a while. I didn’t, however, think it would be our last forest day of the school year. If I had known, perhaps I would’ve made more of an effort to soak it all in–the smells of the redwood trees, the sound of the squealing laughter as the children guided each other blindfolded through the forest, the shrieks of delight when they stumbled upon a banana slug. Now, almost eight weeks later, as I prepare to embark on yet another week of at-home learning and endless Zoom calls, I find myself frequently thinking about all the many things I miss about “real” teaching, and, in particular, teaching outside. Here are a few, in no particular order.
I miss seeing the creative games kids come up with when there are no walls and no toys. With an anthropologist’s watchful eyes, I admire how they spend their time, what worlds, creatures, and situations they conjure, and how they navigate and negotiate these imagined realms.
I miss seeing a new side of my students that doesn’t always show up in the classroom–the tentative child attempting a daring tree climb, the by-the-book literal thinker creatively devising a solution for how to ford the stream, and the timid, shy child boldly calling out across a field and leading his classmates in games. In the forest, preconceived notions and well-worn tropes are challenged, thrown out, and recreated with the most delightful reckless abandon.
I miss Sit Spot — the several moments of complete calm that take over the class and transform them from wild animals in their natural habitat to peaceful, reflective beings.
I miss watching kids make discoveries, connections, and hypotheses in the most natural, unplanned ways. They find some interesting insect nests and hypothesize they might be silkworm cocoons. They find feathers and nails on the ground and become detectives to solve the mystery of how they got there. It is here, in the great outdoors, that all the skills and objectives and learning targets that I so carefully and methodically have imparted on them are applied and brought to life. It is here that the learning is happening.
Animals may be hunkering down for the long, cold winter, but that doesn’t mean you should enter hibernation as well. Don your hats and gloves, and take advantage of the many benefits of teaching outside this winter.
Disclaimer: Taking children outside in extreme temperatures and weather conditions can be dangerous. Always use good judgment when deciding whether to go out or not, and remember to keep the children’s safety as your top priority!
1. Fresh air leads to less sickness
Small, heated classrooms and indoor spaces act as the ideal incubators for bacteria and viruses to thrive, leading to rampant runny noses and coughs. Exposure to fresh air helps keep those germs at bay, plus it helps boost your immune system for added protection.
2. Natural light boosts mood
When you expose your body to natural light, it helps keep your circadian rhythm in tact, which in turn improves your overall sense of well-being and may even help reduce symptoms of depression.
3. Experiencing cold and wet weather increases resilience
With proper gear and preparation, outdoor time in cold and/or wet weather can be an excellent time to teach children some mental toughness. A little discomfort can go a long way towards building one’s capacity for resilience, and it provides a great opportunity to teach children about the importance of adequate clothing and equipment. They may find they are much tougher than they think!
4. Shorter days mean less outdoor activities after school
With daylight in short supply, after school soccer practices and backyard play time may be limited during the winter months. Providing outdoor time during the school day ensures that children are getting their much-needed dose of Vitamin N.
5. Wintertime nature is fascinating and unique
The winter months are rich with opportunities for unique scientific investigations, amazing observations, and just plain beautiful sights.
Here are a few things you can try this winter:
Examine a snowflake under a microscope
Search for animal tracks in the mud or snow
Collect and measure rainfall or snowfall
Splash in mud puddles
Track the temperature
Build a winter shelter– can you make it waterproof?
How will you be spending your outdoor time this winter? Share your ideas, learn from others, and stay warm!
Not all kids are born loving the great outdoors. For some, “nature” is synonymous with dirty, scary, and unpleasant. How can we help these children change their associations with the natural world and learn to see it as an exciting, fun, and comforting place?
A few years ago I had a student (I’ll call her Tanya) who absolutely hated Forest Fridays because she didn’t want to get her clothes dirty–until she did. Fast forward to the last day of school when we went to the beach and Tanya had a meltdown at the end of the day because she did not want to put her shoes back on after being in the sand and water virtually all day. I considered this meltdown a sign of a successful transformation from a nature-fearing to a nature-loving child.
The key to Tanya’s transformation was quite simple: I mostly ignored her. I know I know, I’m a terribly negligent teacher. But hear me out. The first few days in the forest I tried everything I could think of to encourage Tanya to participate and get comfortable being in the dirt. For every argument I made in favor of why it was OK for her to sit on the ground, she was prepared with six counterarguments. While 21 children sat, Tanya stood. When it came time to play and explore, Tanya held back and tried to convince her friends to draw with her or do anything that didn’t involve actually touching dirt or bugs. They guiltily told her thanks but no thanks.
Eventually I gave up trying to persuade Tanya to do things my way, and I just let her sit back and watch everyone else have fun. I stopped fighting her and let her stand instead of sit. (This was a hard one for me, because I am a firm believer in everyone following the “group plan.”) Slowly but surely, Tanya found her way into the group.
The real turning point came with the first rain. As I have mentioned in previous posts, our forest site has a natural swamp that forms once a significant amount of rain falls. It is a scientific fact that no child (and most adults) cannot resist the temptation to jump in a mud puddle. Sure enough, one day I watched with amazement as Tanya dipped first just a toe, then a whole foot, into the swamp. Next thing I knew she was knee-deep in the mucky, squishy mud and squealing with delight.
In the weeks that followed, Tanya was spotted painting her face with charcoal, bushwhacking her way through thick bramble to reach a secret hideout, and, most notably, letting a garter snake slither over her hands. I could hardly believe this was the same child who, only months earlier, had steadfastly refused to let her her clothes come in contact with dirt.
Not all kids who are hesitant about playing in nature will undergo such thorough transformations as Tanya did, and that’s OK. Meet them where they are. Let them take the lead. Never force a child to do something that scares them or makes them uncomfortable, for that is the fastest way to ensure they will never do it again. Be their guide on the side and their biggest chearleader. Encourage, comfort, and engage. Above all, lead by example.
As a nature-based early childhood educator, I hear all the time from parents who want their kiddos to be spending more time outdoors, but aren’t quite sure where to begin. And I get it! Unplugging and heading outdoors can feel intimidating. But it doesn’t have to. Here are my top 4 tips for helping your child connect with nature — even if you’re not a “nature person.”
1. Make Time & Space
Research shows that frequent, unstructured experiences in nature are the most common influence on the development of life-long conservation values. If you want your child to love and care for the earth, all you have to do is make time for them to go outdoors and play!
Too often, though, we overlook close-to-home natural spaces. We think of nature as being synonymous with wilderness, and forget that even city parks and suburban backyards offer fertile ground for fostering a nature connection.
Don’t feel like you have to set aside an entire day or more for a big outdoor adventure. Instead, challenge yourself to go outdoors with your child for just 30 minutes a day for a week. Start getting to know the little patch of nature outside your front door. What changes depending on the weather or the time of day? Don’t worry about having anything planned – just make time and space and let your child lead the way.
2. Learn Together
Can’t tell a maple from an oak tree or an insect from an arachnid? That’s just fine! Let your little one see that you don’t always know everything! Instead, embrace the learning process together. Modeling curiosity – and good research skills – is more valuable than pretending to have all the answers!
Find children’s books on natural themes at the library, invest in a couple of simple field guides specific to your region, and keep a list of your child’s questions and photos of interesting things you find to research together when you’re back inside.
The more time you spend outdoors, the better you’ll get to know your own local ecosystem, and the more plants and animals you’ll find yourself naturally starting to recognize.
3. Model a Positive Attitude
When it comes to spending time outdoors, attitude is everything! Disliking the rain or fearing insects isn’t instinctive – kids learn these attitudes from watching adults. It’s alright if you don’t want to touch every creepy-crawly your child discovers under a log, but try to react with enthusiasm and interest rather than “eews” and “eeks!”
Similarly, work on being enthusiastic about heading outdoors, no matter how hot, cold, or wet the weather may be. Building a deep connection with the natural world requires spending time in nature in all conditions. I think Nicolette Sowder of Wilder Child sums up the benefits of this practice best: “Encouraging a child to go outside in all weather builds resilience, but more importantly it saves them from spending their life merely tolerating the “bad” days in favor of a handful of “good” ones – a life of endless expectations and conditions where happiness hinges on sunshine.”
This may seem easier said then done, but there’s a lot of truth to the Scandinavian saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” More often than not, if we’re uncomfortable outdoors it’s our gear (or lack thereof), not the conditions, that are to blame. Sturdy boots, and quality rain gear can make a huge difference in how you and your child experience time out in the elements, and are well worth the investment!
4. Don’t Go It Alone!
Building a habit of getting outdoors regularly with your child is easier if you have support!
That’s why I recently launched Wonderkin, a monthly subscription box that provides parents with everything they need to jumpstart engaging outdoor play and learning, no matter where they live or how crazy their schedule is.
Each box is curated around a different natural theme, like hibernation and pollination, and includes a high-quality children’s book, materials and guidelines for 3-5 hands-on learning and outdoor exploration activities, and a parent “cheat sheet” to help you answer all your little explorer’s questions. Subscribers also receive exclusive discounts on premium children’s gear from our favorite brands, and access to our Insiders Facebook group, where they can connect with a community of like-minded parents. If you’re interested in trying it out, you can get $5 off your first box with promo code “NATURENAT.”
Want additional support? Find another parent to go on regular outdoor playdates with, or check out Free Forest School, an organization that provides free opportunities for young children and their parents and caregivers to explore, play, and connect in public parks across the U.S.
Emma Huvos is an early-childhood educator and nature play advocate. She runs Riverside Nature School, a nature-based early childhood program located in Charles Town, West Virginia and is the founder of Wonderkin, a monthly subscription box designed to support early childhood development by getting kids outdoors and connected to nature.
It was a beautiful sunny spring day with not a cloud in sight, but half of my class showed up to school on a recent Friday in rain boots. No, they had not been misled by the weather forecast: they were mud-puddle ready.
One of the best features of our outdoor classroom in the Presidio National Park is that every winter, after a few heavy rainstorms, a giant, muddy swamp forms in one corner. The water typically gets up to the kids’ knees during the height of the wet season, and it stays terrifically muddy well into the spring. Hence the rain boots on the otherwise warm and sunny day.
On a typical afternoon, the activity of choice for the swamp area is to splash and stomp around, seeing how high you can wade before you get water inside your shoes. Some children also enjoy poking sticks in the mud to see what lurks beneath. But on this particular Friday, a new activity emerged: submerging hands (and, in a few cases, arms) in the mud, then chasing other non-muddied children (mostly girls) who feigned horror at the idea of getting mud on themselves.
The original mud-bathers was a group of boys. A cluster of girls stood by, watching closely but staying a safe distance away from the mud. Shrieks of “ew!” and “gross!” were heard at regular intervals. And then one of the girls broke from the pack, walked into the swamp, and dipped her hands right into the muck. “This feels so good!” she called back to her friends. They exchanged looks with each other, equal parts shocked and amazed at the boldness of their fellow female. Mere seconds later, the whole group was elbows-deep in the mud, laughing uproariously and chasing after all their classmates. So quickly had this activity transformed from a “boys only” game with the boys pitting themselves against the girls, to one where gender was inconsequential and the jubilation of the experience overshadowed any previous notions of how boys and girls “should” play.
Although this was certainly not the first example of how nature play breaks down gender barriers and stereotypes, it was striking to me how visceral and visual it was. The very act of being in and with nature seems to empower children to act more freely and without the hangups and encumbrances they grapple with in the classroom and on the school yard. Girls who would never join the boys-only soccer game at school are happy to build a dam in the river with a co-ed group of children. Boys who insist that the only acceptable recess activity is playing tag will be the first to initiate a game of “family” in the forest. Nature makes children freer and allows them to bring their full, authentic selves to the proverbial table. For this, I am grateful.
These are just a few of the things I heard– and promptly ignored — from my first graders at a recent Forest Friday as they slowly made their way up and into a willow tree in our outdoor classroom. Some might call my lack of response negligent and uncaring. I call it strength training.
Kids who climb trees, and are encouraged to struggle and stick it out, become stronger not only physically, but also mentally.
Despite all of their self-deprecating comments and vocalizations about fear and doubt, all the kids who attempted to climb the tree that day succeeded in not only getting up, but also getting down. Yes, some took much more coaxing, encouragement, and time than others, but in the end they all did it. And then they didn’t stop telling other kids about it for the rest of the day.
As I stood below the tree and alternately acted as cheerleader, co-strategizer, reassurer, and confidence-booster, I had lots of time to reflect on the many amazing and largely intangible skills and traits each climber was honing through this process.
Strength and balance. Tree climbing is a full-body workout rivaling the most intense exercise programs in terms of its benefits for muscle development and core-strengthening. Core strength is practically an endangered species in children today, and the repercussions are serious: just think how many kids you know who are W-sitters, can’t sit up for more than a few minutes, or have trouble sitting still in a chair.
Bravery. Climbing higher and higher into a plant with unknown strength and weight-bearing capacity is downright terrifying. It takes a significant amount of courage to keep ascending when every ounce of your being is telling you to return to the nice, firm ground.
Perseverance. It’s so much easier to just give up and say no, especially when the going gets tough. It’s fascinating to see what kids do when they get to a tricky part of a climb. How will they tackle this fork in the branch? How will they get around the spiky burl? Where will they put their feet when there are no foot-holds to be found? In my experience, even the kids who declare it can’t be done manage to find a way. And once they’ve tackled that first obstacle, the subsequent struggles become much less daunting.
Confidence. Remember that kid who just moments ago was crying “I can’t do it, it’s too hard!” and begging you to get them down out of the tree? Well, now they’re on the ground, beaming from ear to ear, radiating confidence, and telling anyone within earshot that climbing that tree “was so easy!” and “so fun!” and getting right back in line to do it all again. Funny how they never seem to remember the hard parts.
The Scandinavians have a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
This concept of not only allowing, but encouraging, children to play outside in cold, wet weather sparks fear and horror in many American parents. But in Northern European countries, where the weather is often much colder and much wetter than here in the States, it is a common and recommended practice to take children outside in practically all weather conditions. Newborn babies (well-bundled, mind you) even nap in sub-zero temperatures.
This book, combined with the recent rainstorms in San Francisco, got me thinking: why are we Americans so afraid of “bad weather”? I grew up in Northern California, so my experience with extreme weather events is admittedly limited. But after two-plus years of taking my students
outside year-round, I’ve learned a few things about how to make unpredictable weather your best friend in the forest.
1. Mindset is everything. Your kids will follow your lead. If you’re excited about getting wet, they’ll be excited too. If you are complaining about the cold, expect to hear a chorus of whining from your students. So go ahead and slap a smile on your face, even if you’d rather be supervising indoor recess in your hot, stuffy classroom.
2. Wear the right clothes. The Scandinavians are absolutely right about this one: bad clothing can really ruin your day. I wear mid-calf rubber boots from October through May, even when there is no sign of rain in the forecast. This way I have no hesitation about splashing through mud that may be lingering in shady spots from last week’s rain showers. On days when I know or suspect there will be rain, I throw on my water-resistant pants over a pair of leggings, a fleece pull-over, my water-proof rain coat, and, to top it all off, a baseball hat to keep the rain out of my face. With this ensemble I am able to stay outside comfortably for at least 3 hours. For the kids, I have heard great things about Oaki Wear. They sell everything your children will need to stay dry and warm, from waders to one-piece rain suits, to gloves.
3. Have extra clothes. No matter how well-prepared you are, you will likely still get wet if you stay outside in the rain or snow for an extended time period. (I learned this lesson the hard way a few weeks ago when the public bus stopped running during a rain storm, forcing me and my first graders to walk several miles back to school from a field trip). You can be having all the fun in the world while you’re out in the rain, but as soon as you get back inside you’re going to want to put on dry clothes. Especially socks.
If nothing else, have clean, dry socks for all your kids, and everything will be OK. (Side note: I always include “complete change of clothes, including shoes, socks, and underwear” as part of my Back to School supply list for students. These come in handy for bathroom accidents or art mishaps, too).
Check back next week for 5 more ways to make unpredictable weather your best friend.
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