Thursday, 2 March 2017

Children using Nature for Self-regulation in Urban Environments

Late last week I retweeted and commented on this photo from a kindergarten teacher.  It seemed to resonate with people as they retweeted, liked and shared it.  The original tweet showed a kindergarten student engaged in play with her shadow, trying out different poses on a beautiful sunny February day.

As I was walking down by the riverfront enjoying the unusually warm weather this weekend, I got to thinking about how much I enjoy using nature to help me stay calm.  Even though I live in the city on a very small lot with almost no yard, I can easily walk to a nearby park or head down to the riverfront to destress.

I enjoy reading other teachers' blogs where they talk about heading to the forests, streams and other natural areas near their schools with their students.  But as I walked along, with busy traffic on one side and green grass and the river on the other side, I wondered about our students in our highly urban schools with small playgrounds, often with lots of asphalt and very little green space.  How can we help these students, who are often living in stressful environments, to connect with nature and use nature to self-regulate?  

Certainly the student in the tweet above seems to be engaged in nature play even though there is no greenery in sight.

One of my favourite inner city nature lessons with kindergarten and primary students was to go outside and read "It Looked Like Spilt Milk" by Charles Shaw and then have the students find a comfy spot to lay down, look at the clouds in the sky and invite them to talk with someone nearby about what they saw.  This was an activity they could return to later, on their own or with a classmate,  and I found it was one way that students could find a way to engage in quiet solitary play even in a busy outdoor environment.

One blog I read listed a range of benefits to nature play including:

* Greater physical activity (4)
* Greater mental health and emotional regulation (4)
* Improvements in motor skills (4)
* Healthier blood pressure and cholesterol levels (5)
* Being more fit and lean (6)
* Have stronger immune systems (6)
* Have more active imaginations (6)
* Play better with other children (6)

Children who help in school gardens improve in scientific learning and have healthier eating habits! (4)  Just contacting nature (like seeing trees out your window) can reduce stress and lead to fewer illnesses. (2) (see references below)

How can we help students in highly urban schools connect with nature?  Here are some overhead photos of some of urban schools for your inspiration:

A former elementary school (now closed)

A newer downtown school


  1. Such a great blog post topic, Lisa! This is something that I've thought and blogged about before, as I was at a school last year with no green space and am at one this year that has a forest connected right to it. There's a huge difference in what I see in the kids. I still wonder what's possible for outdoor learning even without trees and greenery. That shadow play that you pictured at the top of your post could be done in a school with only blacktop. Sometimes I think we need to make the most of the space we have, and still consider the benefits of exploring outside (maybe just in a different way). I also wonder if there are schools in other areas that could connect with these ones lacking green space, and provide opportunities for learning there (even 2 or 3 times a year). We have an Outdoor Ed program in our Board. Maybe this could be like a mini-outdoor ed program. What do you think?

    I'm curious to hear what others have to say about this!

  2. Some of our urban schools make use of parks that are nearby, but unfortunately we had a grade 8 student who was severely injured when her class was using a park last year so that practice may no longer be supported by the board. I think we have to be creative and find ways to use the space we do have, just like the student engaged in shadow play.