THE HEALING POWER OF NATURE: When Community and Nature Come Together in the Face of Tragedy

About the Author

Emma Woods is the founder and operator of Woodland Escape, a new Christchurch-based business that designs and builds outdoor learning environments. Emma grew up in Canada, studied to become a teacher, traveled and taught, eventually met her New Zealand-born husband and settled in Christchurch, NZ. A love of plants, play and outdoor learning led her to start Woodland Escape, co-creating spaces to foster a connection and love of nature in children.

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When it comes to risk, I often hear people say that children are safer playing in natural areas than walking down the street—and that it’s better for them to learn risk as a six-year-old than as a 16-year-old behind the wheel of a car.

The benefits and risks of the outdoors represent one of the central questions that come up in any discussions about connecting kids to nature. In April, the topic came up again at the Children and Nature Network International Conference in Vancouver, which I was privileged to attend. The discussion hit home.

Almost seven years ago, I was walking home with our boys on a footpath just around the corner from our house. A young driver lost control of his car, mounted the footpath and hit the three of us. Our six-year-old was badly injured. Our beautiful four-year-old was killed instantly. The driver was 17 and didn’t read the conditions of the road well.

During this tragic time, a beacon of hope immediately came from our community. Our family was part of a local Playcentre (a parent-led early childhood center). The families at the center, together with the families at the schools where my son attended and husband taught, rallied around us.

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The school garden project.

Shortly after the crash, an idea formed around revamping the Playcentre’s outside area into a nature-based playground in our son’s memory. The playground would be a gift to the children who would use the center in the future.

As fate would have it, author, designer and artist Rusty Keeler was attending the Natural Phenomenon conference in New Zealand at the same time that we were planning the playground’s design. We reached out to Rusty and were honored that he agreed to come to Christchurch to help us with the design and build of the playground.

Donations of plants, materials, and money came from people in New Zealand, as well as around the world. Groups of school children, their parents, friends, families, and even strangers, came out to help during the few days we completed the new play environment.

The young man, who unintentionally killed our son, came out to help one day. Many said that it was helpful to see him in that setting. 

We enjoyed several days of craziness, laughter, shared grief, reflection, and a wonderful feeling of community––all reinforcing the fact that our family was surrounded by people who wanted to help us.

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The school garden project.

Three months after we finished the project at the Playcentre, and nine months after the crash, Christchurch experienced the second of a major series of earthquakes that devastated our city center. When the first large quake struck at lunchtime on February 22nd, our eldest boy was at his inner city school.

Fortunately, I had just completed my first morning as a teacher’s aide at school and could get back into the building, see he was safe, and help evacuate the children through to Hagley Park.

With the city cordoned off, our school was moved to temporary grounds in an empty field on the outskirts of town. With strong aftershocks continuing, it felt like we were a wee huddle of shell-shocked sheep in an empty paddock. Without any idea of how long we were there for, we started building a playground for our children.

There was no money. So we built the playground from donated materials and sourced natural and scrap materials like logs, pallets, cable reels and tires. We also put in lots of plants, some coming from the gardens of families who lost their houses in the earthquakes and weren’t allowed to continue living on their land.

That was six years ago. Today, we have almost two more years in our temporary location before we return to the city.

I am grateful that the school directors we had over those years were open to our work. Although those first few years are a bit of blur for me, they allowed us to keep digging up more areas, putting in more gardens and planting many seeds.

Those empty fields are now filled with plants and areas for our children to explore, play and learn. When we return to the city at the end of 2018, the grounds will be returned to an empty field, Those experiences taught me about the healing experience of planting, building and connecting with community.

I’d like to thank everyone involved in this worldwide movement. You never know how people are going to benefit from connecting with the natural world.

Attending the recent Children and Nature Network International Conference—hearing what people all over the world are doing to foster a love of nature in children, their families, and their communities—was a fantastic experience.

I hope more children get access to natural play so they can learn to manage risk as a six-year-old, instead of as a 16-year-old behind the wheel of a car—and so they have opportunities to connect with the land and their communities.

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The school garden project.

More Reading
TRENDS THAT GIVE US HOPE: The Power and Potential of Green Schoolyards, by Sharon Danks
GREEN SCHOOLYARD MOVEMENT: Gaining Ground around the World
SCHOOLYARD-ENHANCED LEARNING AND MOVING THE CLASSROOM OUTDOORS, by Herb Broda ON THE RIVER: The Restorative Power of Nature in Difficult Times, by Richard Louv
TECHNOLOGY IS IN OUR NATURE: But to Flourish, We Still Need Our Wild Connection

In the News
New Zealand Children Demand More Nature Play
Kids Need Access to Nature for Mental Health
New Zealand Herald article about Emma

Additional Resources
C&NN’s Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities initiative
International School Grounds Alliance

Woodland Escape Facebook Page
Rusty Keeler’s EarthPlay
Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds
Book: Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation


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