The COVID-19 pandemic naturally creates high anxiety and stress for everyone. Fortunately for those of us who live in Maine with easy access to nature, the outdoors can continue to support our well-being and learning while we need to stay away from school or work.
Numerous studies show that spending time outdoors regularly improves both our physical and mental health and improves concentration. So time spent outdoors can be especially valuable in these difficult times. In fact, the The Irish government encouraged families spending time outdoors during this pandemic. Fresh air is good for all of us, and it’s much easier to maintain a minimum distance of 6 feet from each other outdoors than indoors.
Teachers in Maine are scrambling to create virtual learning opportunities, and parents are trying to come up with engaging activities for kids trapped at home. Here are some simple outdoor learning activities to try in your own backyard or at a nearby reserve.
1. Color matching
If you have colorful magazines, construction paper, or paint swatch cards handy, go outside to find a perfect match to these colors in nature – one color at a time. You will be amazed at the number of colors available, even in early spring. Then you can make a rainbow or other nature art with whatever you find. You can even photograph your creation to share on your favorite social media platform.
2. Make models and art of nature
For a hands-on and imaginative activity, you can build models of different things with found natural objects like sticks, stones, and leaves. Some avenues to consider: make a healthy ecosystem model; make a model of what you want your future community to look like; or build a model of the habitat of a particular animal. To inspire even more creativity, make art using what you find in nature without any prompts and see what grows. Discover the work of the British artist Andy Goldsworthy for inspiration.
3. Nature journal
All you need to start a nature journal is a writing utensil and something to write on. The possibilities are endless and each one helps us connect with the world around us. Plus, nature journaling can connect to just about any school subject. Consider choosing a special location outside to revisit and journal daily. Here are some examples of prompts:
– Record the phenological observations. What evidence can you find outside of the change of seasons? You can write or draw any new birds you see or hear, new shoots of emerging plants, or animals that you find evidence of. You don’t need to know what you’re watching or hearing to be able to notice things change.
– Read an excerpt from a naturalist writer like Rachel Carson or Henry David Thoreau, then write about a place in nature in that writer’s style.
– Start writing with just these sentences to guide you: I wonder…, I notice…, Today I feel grateful for…, Being in nature makes me feel…
– Draw or write down as many observations as you can. What do you hear, see, smell and feel on the outside?
– Paint or draw what you see using found materials. For example, use dirt to draw the browns, last summer’s highbush cranberries for the reds, tufts of emerging herbs for the greens, and charcoal for the black.
Named by Susan Rudy, a National Park Service naturalist, a BioBlitz is an activity where you aim to identify as many different living things as possible in a particular area. You can use field guides to help you identify items or just record items that you know are different from each other. You can also try mobile app like Merlin, iNaturalist or Seek to help you identify yourself.
Compare what you find in different ecosystems, such as in fields versus forest, or in wetlands versus drylands. This activity can easily lead to math or science projects involving the creation of graphics or research projects. You can even download what you find and get information on identifying different things through a free app like iNaturalist. For the younger ones, they can simply count the number of different living things in different areas to compare.
5. Create a sound map
In the center of a sheet of paper, draw a little you or a smiley to represent yourself. Sit in one place in silence and listen to the sounds around you. On your paper, draw or write the sounds you hear and try to place those sounds where you think they are coming from versus where you are sitting. For example, if you hear a bird singing in the distance, draw it near the edge of your paper. If you hear water flowing near you, draw it near you on the paper. Do you hear more human-made sounds or other sounds? Try this at different times of the day and in different weather conditions, even when it is raining. Simply bundle up.
6. Explore tiny worlds
Discover tiny worlds in nature. Use a ruler or a small square to focus on a single small point. Get down on the ground and look very closely from an ant’s point of view – turn the leaves over, gently dig into the ground, and look between the blades of grass. Write, draw or explore just by thinking of the following questions:
– How many creatures can you find living in this small world?
– How many different houses or types of habitat can you find here?
– What kind of animal or plant do you think would really like this place?
Hopefully the above ideas inspire home parents with kids and inspire some additions to distance lesson plans. If you’re looking for more ideas, here are three books to explore:
– Vitamin N: 500 Ways to Enhance Your Family’s Health and Happiness by Richard Louv
– Play the Forest School Way: Woodland Games, Crafts and Skills for Adventurous Kids and A Year of Forest School: Outdoor games and skill learning for each season, by Jane Worroll and Peter Houghton
Hazel Stark is the co-founder of Maine Outdoor School, L3C, based in Milbridge. Maine Outdoor School provides personalized and standards-compliant outdoor learning opportunities for schools, organizations, and families, primarily in Washington and Hancock counties. Hazel is also a recorded guide from Maine and co-produces a Maine outdoorsy radio show called The Nature of Phenology, which airs on WERU-FM at 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays. You can find out more and contact Hazel at www.maineoutdoorschool.org.