Three weeks ago, life as I knew it was pretty great: every week I got to bring nature connection games, stories and lots of love and silliness to over 400 kiddos in central Ohio.
Inspired by Richard Louv, Jon Young, Dave Bauer and many more authors, I had worked my way up from being an assistant Pre-K Teacher in 2013 to being a full-time school naturalist in November of 2019, at Little Dreamers Big Believers and Balanced Family Academy. For 5 months I’ve been living my dream: the parents loved it, I felt fulfilled and the kids were having a blast… then Coronavirus happened.
Two weeks ago, as the global pandemic COVID-19 was getting bigger and bigger, it became clear this was going to disrupt life as I knew it.
At first, I was saddened by the shutdowns… I wouldn’t get to see all my students. My thoughts quickly flipped to, “Hey, these kiddos aren’t going to get weekly nature class… for a while” and then “These kids’ entire lives are going to be really off-schedule and strange and their parents are going to be stressed.” The words of my hero, Mister Rogers, rang in my head: “Look for the helpers.” How could I be a helper?
Knowing routine is critical for a child’s sense of security, I decided to keep nature class going the only way possible—through daily videos. I thought seeing a familiar, smiling face every day from “back when things were normal” would be soothing for all these ki and parents. I had been asked about doing a nature show several times before, but my aversion to screen time always made me say no. Now it was my only option. But I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to be interactive. I wanted it to be more than 20 minutes of chipmunk facts and songs.
Combining elements from Dora the Explorer and again, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I have started working on a YouTube show called Little Adventures Big Connections based on relationships. In the show, I talk directly to the viewers, frequently invite them to pause and head outside listen for that bird song or to play CHIP CHIP, the Cardinal-version of Marco Polo. Throughout my videos, I am constantly inviting the families to try these ideas out in their own yards and to email me their discoveries or share them on our school’s private Facebook page.
Here’s the best, most amazing, hopeful thing about all this: I’ve been getting so many emails about families finding flowers in their yards, or hearing their neighborhood birds. I’ve been getting pictures and videos of kiddos and their families finding worms and creating plays celebrating their spring flowers… and they are smiling! Now I’m smiling too. I’m so grateful for the technology letting this happen!
To the reader of this blog post, I’ll share that, while it seems that the whole world is grinding to a halt and everything we’ve known is now unknown, know this: Nature is still very much alive. The birds are still singing. The flowers are blooming. And kids are wondering. I’m wondering too: who’s your neighbor?
Wherever you are, you have neighbors… wild neighbors. Perhaps you are fortunate enough to live on many acres with a vibrant ecosystem of plant and animal brothers and sisters. Maybe you live on the 40th floor of a New York City apartment with a few trees 300 feet below you and the occasional pigeon on the windowsill. Those scenarios and everything in between is nature. It all counts. What if we took this time to really get to know the little details of that tree outside? What if we learned the mannerisms of that chickadee at the feeder? What if we camped beside a dandelion, waiting to see who stops by? What if we watched the live footage of an eagle nest?
And finally, the biggest “what if?” What if we take this time to slow down and connect with each other and our own little spot on the map? I’m excited to find out!
Note: The Children & Nature Network has consulted with members of the public health community who assure us that encouraging outside time, especially nearby home and at a distance of at least 6 feet from others, is not only safe but recommended for reducing anxiety, depression, loneliness, and other ailments that come with social isolation.
Jared Goodykoontz is a school naturalist and children’s author/illustrator in Columbus, Ohio who fosters nature connection with over 400 two through six-year-olds each week. He created the program from scratch after being called to action through Richard Louv’s "Last Child in the Woods," among many other resources. He lives on six acres of land with his wife and daughter (with another on the way!)
Additional Reading & Resources
Little Adventures, Big Connections 10 Nature Activities to Help Get Your Family Through the Coronavirus Pandemic NATURE GOES ON: Rediscovering the Rhythm of Nature in a Crisis Noah’s New Ark: Environmental Catastrophe and the Power of Love by Richard Louv for Psychology Today FIRE AND FERMENTATION: Tragedy and Renewal Nature RX: The Best Medicine TOGETHER IN NATURE Pathways to a Stronger, Closer Family C&NN’s Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit