Outdoor Classrooms Improve Indoor Learning

horns

Last week I had the opportunity to do one of my favorite activities: educating children about our forest habitat. Often I have the job of shepherding groups of children through the deciduous forest in which we live, but this time I had a station where I was talking about the animals that live in our forests in Virginia. Believe it or not, I love doing this! I was speaking with 2nd graders, so they were very energetic – it was a field trip after all! – but they were also full of wonder. I truly believe that wonder and information are what will enable all of us to live more peaceably with the natural world. We talked about habitats, and food chains, bob cats and deer, coyotes, foxes, and rabbits, and, of course, skunks. For the girl who suggested a million times that every creature we discussed should eat fish, we talked about river otters. Overall, it was a wonderful time. They learned a lot, and I lost my voice!

Then I came back and did a little research, as I love to do, to see what has been published on the topic. I was curious because my children’s school has a beautiful outdoor classroom that is in a similar forest, but it’s been my experience that sometimes teachers feel it’s a lot of trouble to go out there. I am very sympathetic to their viewpoint, and as someone who knows I could never be a teacher and stands in awe of all they do every day, please know that’s not a criticism. So I thought it was interesting that a recent publication in a 2017 issue of Frontiers in Psychology (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5758746/) suggests that children are more attentive and focused indoors in the period after they’ve spent time learning in an outdoor classroom. Good news! And that goes along with all the research that suggests time outdoors enhances our memory and attention – adults AND children! So teachers, if you want happier, better behaved, more focused children – find a way to take them outside for a nature lesson.

Advertisements

Snapping Turtle: A Teachable Moment

Snapping Turtle

A friend texted me this morning, while I was busy procrastinating: “Since I know you love nature, would you like to come see a snapping turtle in our garden?” Of course! My husband and I dropped everything, and walked down the street to our neighbor’s garden (which is a fantastic wildlife and child friendly garden! But I’ll write about that another day). There, trying to dig her way under leaf litter close to a young hydrangea near a tree, was a snapping turtle bigger than a dinner plate.

Ordinarily, none of us would be too worried about snapping turtles – although…. my neighbor had been surprised by the turtle while she was working in the garden less than a foot away. We know what to do – avoid them and let them do their thing! However, we all have small children. I won’t speak for her children, who are very polite and well-behaved, but I can say for sure that my 7 yr old, who is an extremely active and curious and probably over confident child, would immediately try to pick up such a large turtle.

So we discussed the options. We all believed that she lives in a nearby pond (where the kids go to catch tadpoles), but was probably out and about looking for somewhere to lay eggs. This garden, being much more naturalistic than a yard coated in thick turf, and full of newly planted seedlings, probably appealed to her a great deal. We learned quickly that trying to move the turtle to another location is illegal. Naturalists advised us that after she lays her eggs, she’ll go back to her watery home.

So, the turtle is now a teachable moment. Where we had once been thinking to get rid of her in order to protect the children we are now going to have to do something that will probably serve them better: teach them about snapping turtles. Basically, they need to know how to identify a snapping turtle, where to be cautious of them, and, probably most importantly, to leave snapping turtles (and all other wildlife) alone, as much as possible. That’s a rule that benefits both the children and the wildlife!

That said, on the way back from lunch, I pulled over abruptly on a road leading to our house because two mature adult slides and a baby slider were in the middle of the road. Another lady stopped too, and together we moved the turtles out of the road in the general direction they were traveling. So, there are times when it’s good to stop and touch the wildlife!

Hiking Makes Us Happy

Waterfall

We discovered a new favorite hike this past weekend – the Rose River Loop Trail in the Shendandoah National Park. The trail is moderately challenging, with plenty of areas where you have to clamber up and down rocks. But it also descends through thick forest to the Rose River. There are plenty of waterfalls large and small to see along the way. We were not able to spend as much time as we would have wanted along the river, because we didn’t bring towels and swimsuits. We also had our dog with us, and a couple with a dog was behind us, so we felt some pressure to continue on. Unfortunately, our dog is a vigorous and sonorous barker, and he would simply have barked the whole way if they were in front.

So, guess what? A three hour hike in the mountains has been shown to make people happier than staying home. That’s no surprise to someone like me, who loves to hike! That data comes from a May 2017 PLoS One article published by a team from Austria (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28520774). They compared people who hiked for three hours with indoor treadmill activity or sedentary activity, and found that hiking generally improved mood best. Their conclusion – hikes should be on the prescription pad! My only thought is that if the hike took place with a group, or even a few other people, there’s the social factor as well, to consider. I don’t know if one would be happier hiking solo. I know I prefer company!

I was hiking with my husband and my two elementary school age boys, as well as the dog.

So, a couple of tips for hiking with children:

(1) make sure you have lots of snacks and water, and the patience to stop frequently for snacks and water.

(2) let go of any fantasy that your children will enjoy the whole thing. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they fuss loudly.

(3) take swimming gear and clean clothes, especially if you’ll be around waterfalls. And be prepared for the hassle of having to change the kids in and out of said clothes or swim gear.

(4) take bug spray

(5) give everyone a whistle. We did have a child wander off the path and get turned around. However, he panicked fast and yelled loudly, so we could find him quickly. Another child who panics less quickly might have gone further.

Green Space in Cities Lowers Type 2 Diabetes Risk

sun and trees

Adults who live more than 0.8 km (or about a half a mile) from urban green space appear to be less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, according to research in the 2018 BMJ Open (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5781018/). The researchers were actually interested in whether proximity to green space in inner city areas had an impact on BMI (body mass index) or type 2 diabetes risk, or both. The research was done in Germany, so perhaps it is only relevant to Germans. Nonetheless, they found that while green space location doesn’t appear to have a relationship with BMI, they did find that adults who are closer to green space are less likely to have type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is correlated with excess weight — and other factors such as sedentary lifestyles. This research (and other similar research) suggests that if green space is close enough, people will go to it and enjoy it. A 2011 study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health seems to confirm that people who are closer to green space are also more likely to be physically active and closer to normal weight. I personally think that there may be other factors involved. We know that green space reduces stress and depression — and it is also possible that these feed into people’s diabetes risk as well.

This is important news for families as well as city planners – it’s a good idea to get out into green space together if you can. And if you have a chance to advocate for more green spaces in your neighborhood, do so.