Take it outside: why teenagers need a daily fix of nature
Some neuroscientists are convinced that exposure to nature can aid the brain, but secondary students are rarely being led into the fresh air. Feline Charpentier opens the door to some blue-sky thinking
Forest bathing. That is what our screen-addled, short-attention-spanned teenagers need.
No, I don’t mean going for a weekly wash in the local woodland, but the latest “big thing” in mindfulness. It involves spending specific amounts of time in woodland and forests: walking, breathing in the air, foraging for wild foods, listening to the wind in the trees, touching the leaves and bark as you go. If you feel so inclined, you can meditate somewhere along the way or write a poem.
This is not new: forest bathing is an ancient preventive medicine in Japan; in Finland, they have been doing it since pagan times. And it is catching on: South Korea has plans to create “healing forests” near every major town within the next two years.
You might think that this is all a bit hippyish, but there is increasing scientific and neurological evidence to back it up. Indeed, while those on the more traditional side of teaching believe neuroscience is proving their way of doing things to be correct, one study at a time, there is plenty of research around the benefits of being outside in nature and its effect on learning, too. Schools would do well to take notice of it.
Studies have found that participants who “bathe” in nature, as opposed to urban environments, display, among other things, reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol; blood pressure; heart rate; sympathetic nerve activity (the system that engages our fight-or-flight response); and, according to psychological questionnaires, anxiety, while producing better moods.
Some of these benefits have been detailed by Florence Williams in her book The Nature Fix: why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative. In every chapter, Williams visits someone conducting research into the effects of these different experiences of nature on the mind. Her focus is the neuroscience – how our brains are hardwired.
She visits forest-bathing woodland reserves in South Korea and Japan, and explores how our hormone levels change and our nerve responses are affected. Williams treks through the Utah desert and discovers how the creative parts of the brain are more engaged after time in the wilderness; she describes how “soft fascination” and “flow states” are the ultimate goal.
Williams structures the book around the idea of engaging each of our senses, in what Tim Beatley, professor of sustainable communities at the University of Virginia, terms a “nature pyramid”. The big part at the bottom of the pyramid, much like a food pyramid, is daily “normal” doses of nature, such as watering our potted plants or walking through a park to work: the essentials that we need to keep us at a baseline every day.
The middle part of the pyramid is weekly, or less regular, larger doses, such as gardening or work outside: beneficial and enriching.
The tip of the pyramid is more one-off, bigger trips to the “wilderness”.
In our modern culture, most teenage students are only getting the tip of the pyramid, the annual “camp out” or bushcraft weekend, if they are lucky.
But it is the regular, integrated time in the outdoors that Florence argues is the more beneficial – the one with the greater long-term effects. Our younger children are now getting more of this through forest schools. Why not our older students?
Walk on the wild side
I teach at a school with a working farm and garden, and, during the students’ curriculum time with us, I see them demonstrating a huge variety of skills: independence, entrepreneurship, leadership, interpersonal, critical thinking, sense of community, compassion, empathy, self-awareness and, of course, the buzzword of our times: resilience. I admit that we are lucky regarding the space and resources we have. In this age of severe budget constraints and ever-increasing pressure to produce tangible results, it would be difficult to justify arguing for new departments to be created, for schools to spend money on outdoor projects when there is not enough cash for the nuts and bolts of daily operation.
But ever-more school farms and outdoor classrooms are springing up, as well as new examples of schools taking their education into the wilderness, despite the challenges.
There are also lots of ways for schools to introduce regular, bottom-of-the-pyramid, timetabled sessions in which students can benefit from time spent learning in, and from, the outdoors without wholescale change or budget shifts, whether urban or rural. Try:
• Creating an area in which students can grow vegetables, herbs or flowers in pots on a windowsill, or in a corner of the playground, however small. It is a simple thing that, hardly surprisingly, 15-year-olds will find as brilliant as four-year-olds.
• Holding a regular maths or science lesson on the edge of the football pitch or under a tree – even on a blustery, chilly day. It could prove to be memorable.
Other ideas include:
• Taking mindfulness sessions into the outdoors, even if it’s just for 20 minutes after lunch.
• Linking design and technology lessons with local building projects or heritage sites.
• Simply eating lunch outside once a week.
• Having an end-of-term campfire afternoon.
• Inviting a local city farm or zoo to get involved in the curriculum.
• Taking students to the nearest park, on a weekly or at least a half-termly basis.
The potential is limitless, it just requires the inclination and some imagination. You cannot dismiss engagement with nature as “fluffy” any more. The evidence is there and we should use it as the impetus to make a change.
The Japanese philosopher and farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, put it best when he said “the ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings”.
Feline Charpentier is a teacher of outdoor work at Bedales School in Steep, Hampshire