Stress can be a good thing. But increasingly, negative stress cuts deep and hard through our society. As much as we love our children, there is stress in parenting. Then there is the stress of overtime—or unemployment, underemployment, the job we don’t like, too much of the job we like, meeting the mortgage, failing to meet the mortgage … the list goes on.
In the middle of our adult worries, we might feel the pull of Peter Pan. How enviable to be a child, with nothing to worry about! Peter Pan lived in Neverland. Children have stresses of their own, which can look all the more foreboding when you are four feet tall.
There is doing homework, losing homework, the scary teacher who gets mad when you don’t have your homework, parents who get mad when the scary teacher gets mad, getting teased for being overweight, getting teased for being skinny . . . and then all those things your parents worry about that you only partially understand but you feel the weight of their worries coming down on you too. The list of stressors is long for children too.
In our society full of stresses, nature can be a healing haven. We hear about benefits of nearby nature for children’s increased physical activity, improved concentration, and reduced asthma, but equally important is the value of natural areas as places to shed stress, recharge, and put day-to-day problems in perspective.
The importance of nature as a refuge from stress came through strongly in three dissertations that I supervised. All three doctoral students did interviews and observations on green school grounds: Emily Stanley with young children in an elementary school in Maryland where a pine grove and wooded area with a stream were accessible for recess play; Kelly Keena with older elementary school students in Colorado who did science and writing lessons outdoors in a natural habitat with a patch of scrub oak, a pond and a field; and Illene Pevec with Colorado high school students who engaged in gardening either as a class requirement or for service hours.
The younger students voted for the value of nature play with their feet. Almost to a person, they headed for the woods during recess rather than the school’s athletic field or built playground.
There they observed small animals like squirrels and salamanders, waded in a stream, built dams, constructed forts, and traded found objects like wild apples and quartz—all with rapt absorption. In contrast to the freedom and happiness that they reported feeling in the woods, they recalled recess on asphalt surfaces and flat grass playing fields at previous schools as “BORING!” “torture!” “a rip-off!”
Alumni of the school and parents described the woods as a safe haven where children could test out different social roles during the creative, cooperative play that the woods afforded, demonstrate competence at their self-appointed tasks, and escape classroom stresses.
Older elementary school students who did writing and science in the natural habitat of the Colorado schoolyard knew that they were benefitting from the contributions of classes before them and that they would leave the area enhanced for future classes, as the ecology of the area had been restored during work days by teachers, students and parent volunteers.
Each sixth grade class sponsored an annual Legacy Day before their spring graduation, when they mentored younger students in improvements like repairing trails and planting new trees and native perennials. On arriving in the schoolyard, every class began with a ritual two minutes of silence—time to shed classroom cares and tune into the singing of crickets, birds and frogs.
Because teachers allowed these older students to pick objects of interest for science study and nature journaling, they became as raptly absorbed in their work as the younger children in Maryland did in their play. When each student was asked to write three words that described the habitat, a quarter wrote “peaceful” or “calm.”
In the high school gardening programs, some students gardened as a service requirement, some as a course requirement, some as part of an elective course, and some as volunteers, but it made no difference in how they described their experiences.
When they were asked, “How do you feel while gardening?” and “How do you feel after gardening?” not one out of 52 students reported negative feelings. When all the words that they used to describe gardening were counted, they used the words “calm,” “peaceful” and “relaxed” 46 percent of the time. Other positive emotions that they expressed were happiness, joy, feeling good and feeling love.
When they were asked whether their capacity to pay attention changed after gardening, 51 out of 52 said that it improved. They also found gardening a contemplative task that gave them time to center and put the stresses at home and at school into perspective.
Not every family has natural areas around their home or a park down the block, but almost every family sends their children to a school where there is a playground or playing fields. If part of this acreage were converted into nature play areas, habitats for study and gardens, all children could have a green haven in their lives. A place for calm, peace, and rapt absorption, as well as the other benefits of access to nature that research has documented.
Let’s make Legacy Day part of every school tradition.