Spending Time in Nature During the COVID-19 Global Health Crisis

By Heather Kulkhen

It is difficult to get out into nature right now, with access to state and national parks, school gardens, and wild places far from home all limited or cut off. But at the same time, getting outside with your children has never been easier or more important. Since I was a small child in the 1970s, this is the slowest the world has moved.

And suddenly, my children are able to go out into our backyard for hours—something that their schedules have not allowed for years. I cannot count the number of texts, emails, and social media posts I have received or seen in the last three weeks telling stories of parents taking their kids on walks in the neighborhood, bike riding, playing outside, or going fishing together in a pond or creek, with many families doing so for the first time in years.

Every evening, my neighborhood has been flooded with families out walking together. Despite the fear, danger and anxiety of this global health crisis (which I also feel acutely because I am at higher risk having asthma), and the stress of trying to figure out how to lead our children’s distance learning while working from home, I have also never felt so hopeful about the things we are learning from this experience, as families slow down, stop their overcommitted schedules, and spend time together.

I am the founder and director of the non-profit Families in Nature. I am also the parent of three boys between 10 and 18 years old who have homeschooled intermittently while I work full time and manage my staff from home. I have spent years trying to balance working in the same house at the same time as teaching three kids in three different grades, two of which have learning differences. In many ways, the sheltering in place that we are now doing feels very familiar to me and to my children, so we have adjusted fairly easily. Though in years past, we did not also have our access to nature and the grocery store limited, and we did not have the at-times-overwhelming stress of being afraid that one of us or our extended family or community will get sick. I will come back to those massive sources of stress. First, I want to offer some support on working while managing your kids and their learning at home, since it is a structure I have willingly chosen several times over the past decade.

The key to teaching your children at home while you are also working from home is nature. And at a time when most of us don’t have access or have extremely limited access to local, state and national parks, one of the best tools to help you through this time is to find nearby nature. For many, that is your own backyard. For families who live in apartments, nearby nature may be in a shared space where you will need to stay six feet away from other people in the green space. It could also be a window garden, porch or even a corner of the room that is filled with potted plants. Your place of nearby nature may not even be a place you previously thought of as nature, but small amounts of nature can be found almost anywhere.

If the nature closest to you is your backyard or porch garden and it doesn’t feel like or look like “nature” to you or your children, then your first project as a family might be to transform that space into one that does feel like “nature” to you. You could move pruned sticks into a pile to create wildlife habitat or you could build a birdhouse together with materials around your house to attract birds that are building nests in the beginning of spring. It may be hard to find plants to plant because most nurseries are likely closed, but you can challenge your children to think creatively about how they can attract wildlife to your nature space using only what they already own. A broken pot could be a “toad abode” by turning it upside down and putting it in a shady spot. You could even use your recycling to build a bird feeder. You could consider making your yard into a National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat like we did.

My children’s favorite thing to do in our yard is to build fairy houses and villages (which could also be done indoors if you don’t have a backyard). They use sticks, leaves, pebbles, grass, iris fronds woven into roofs, twine, and other items they find in the yard and garage to build tiny houses on the ground and hanging from trees. They have even built boats out of natural materials and recycling to float in the pond we built out of an old cattle trough. Kids can be incredibly creative if they are given unstructured time to play in nature. I sometimes even find little rock cairns balanced in our potted plants indoors. So, identify a place that can be your nearby nature, then challenge your family to transform it into a space that feels like nature to you and your children.

The second task that will help your family through “sheltering in place” is to set aside a (preferably large) block of time that your children are not allowed to use their screens each day. Their eyes and brains and creativity need a break from screens for part of every day (as do yours). I know how hard it is to pull a teenager off of a screen, but they get used to having this required screen-free block of time. Help them notice how they feel after hours of video games in contrast to how they feel physically and mentally after their block of screen-free time. Over time, once they accept it and get used to it, they may seek out screen-free time on their own as they feel their mind and body relax without the stimulus and blue light that comes from screens. Our family rule during homeschooling was that a screen is a tool, not a toy. On weekends it can be a toy, but during the week, it is only a tool. Learning to put down a screen is an enormous life skill for this generation of children who have and will likely always have access to screens. And it benefits parents to take screen-free breaks during the day as well.

My third tool for balancing working from home with caring for children who are also at home is siblings. This is challenging if you only have one child, but only children also tend to be more capable of (and used to) creating fun independently. For families with multiple children, this time of sheltering in can give them a beautiful opportunity, once they adjust to being together all day every day, to make memories together that they can keep forever. Challenge your children to create something together. Trust them to cooperate. If you have a huge age spread like I do, you can put the older child in charge of coming up with a game or project for the younger child.

When your children work together on a project, you can get your own work done. Consider moving your laptop to your nearby nature spot so you can keep an ear on what they are doing, or enjoy some of the benefits of nature yourself even if your focus is on your work. (I work on my screen porch most days while my kids are in the backyard coming up with all kinds of projects. I intervene as little as possible, but enough to make sure everyone is staying safe and being careful with each other’s bodies and feelings.) Older siblings can also tutor younger siblings, helping with their distance learning lessons. Sheltering in place can be an enormous and very unique opportunity for family connection, creative play, cooperation, and a drastically slower pace.

Once you have a place to encourage your children to go play, you’ve designated siblings as the ideal (and available) playmates, and you have set aside some daily screen-free time, you can use your nearby nature space to help you work and them to learn. Time in nature increases focus, creativity, cooperation, and learning. When children (and parents) are given the space and time to be creative, they come up with some of the most amazing things. Children will naturally learn if their curiosity is engaged, and almost every encounter with nature can provide discovery or lesson disguised as play. While school is being taught remotely or drastically reduced due to COVID-19, time in nature can supplement your child’s learning. And this is true even when school is in session as normal.

During this time of global crisis, FIN would like to support you and your family while you are staying at home by giving you ideas to get out into nature, to encourage siblings to play and learn together and to support or supplement your children’s science education. Over the next few months, we will be giving you 6 lessons per week from our Ecologist School Guidebook, which contains over 1400 lessons, in addition to information on subjects such as how to teach hope and how to teach all ages together. This informal science education program, which I created from almost three decades of teaching in nature, allows you to earn badges in science by learning in nature together. The lessons are intended for all ages all together and most can be done in your own backyard, or even in your house, with minimal materials. The lessons are arranged in 16 branches of science relevant to ecology (such as entomology, climatology, hydrology, paleontology, and oceanography) in each of eight categories: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math, Outdoor skills, Volunteerism, and Leadership. If your child or family completes four of our lessons in one science branch, you can earn a badge for that science. We encourage you and your children to keep a nature journal to creatively express through writing or drawing what you have seen, learned and experienced during each activity. Each lesson should feel like play to a child, but as most nature experiences are, they are filled with learning opportunities created by curiosity and hands-on experience. A Science Seed is included with each activity so that you can answer your children’s questions or inspire their curiosity about the world around them. The lessons and information can be found on our website. You can share your photos and stories by emailing us at info@familiesinnature.org or tagging us on Facebook @familiesinnature.org or on Instagram @familiesinnature. We will continue to add new lessons each week.

Nature can occupy your children while you balance all of the things you need to do while everyone is staying home together. Nature can inspire curiosity, cooperation between siblings, creativity, and learning. And research shows that nature is one of the most effective antidotes to stress and anxiety. Just the sight of green space (even nature photography) can speed healing from illness. Our brains are wired to be in nature and they respond to time outside by calming down. The COVID crisis has immersed the world in stress and anxiety, in many different aspects of life from personal health to extended family to employment to finances. The best we can do at this moment is to limit the effects of this anxiety. Nature can help with this. Take time every day for each member of your family, separately or together, to spend time in nature – walking outdoors, sitting in your nearby nature space, or even opening your windows and feeling the breeze while you stay indoors. Let your eyes loosely focus on trees or plants or water and take deep breaths. Clear your mind even if only for a few moments each day. And teach your children to do the same. We cannot currently change the coronavirus outbreak, but we can take care of ourselves and our families while we are staying at home to take care of our communities. Nature can help you take care of yourself and your family.

As the world is paused and stress and anxiety swirl around everyone, everywhere, try to find moments of peace with your family to play, learn and connect, to create memories together and notice the enjoyment you can have together even during this time of crisis, with the help of nature.

Heather Kuhlken, is the Founder and Director of Families in Nature.

We are leading a global movement to increase equitable access to nature so that children– and natural places–can thrive.​ ​We ​do this ​by investing in leadership and communities through sharing evidence-based resources, scaling innovative solutions and driving policy change.

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