What happens when two mates from high school who haven’t seen or spoken (let alone emailed) to each other decide to catch up for a coffee after 14 years? They try and change the world, together. (I’m only half joking!)
Although the years had passed, Dan and I caught up for coffee at Collingwood Children’s Farm and picked up right where we left off in Year 12. After each of us got our hit of fresh coffee, the joyful madness ensued.
Conversation inevitably trended towards life-defining experiences. Dan had spent two years teaching in the remote Aboriginal community of Bidyadanga with his wife, became a father, and recently founded the popular education blog, Upgrade Think Learn. I had co-founded Wild Melbourne and Remember The Wild, and recently graduated with a PhD only a few months before catching up with Dan. But the defining moment of our conversation was Dan’s daughter.
Looking at the wide-eyed, ball-of-cuteness that is Dan’s daughter, the penny dropped for Dan and I. For the sake of our collective future, we realised our passions and motivations converged on one critical point – how do we empower people to challenge themselves, grow stronger and more compassionate, and have the world all the better for it?
For Dan, the father and teacher, it was about really tapping into the individual and providing education in the most meaningful and effective way to impact the future. For me, the scientist and conservationist, it was about empowering people to make positive environmental change.
With our collective experiences and thoughts, we thought it prudent to share how we might tackle our challenge, and hopefully equip the next generation with the personal tools to make this world better than we will have left it.
Stress and mindfulness, it’s so hot right now
We know finding time and space in our full minds is crucial. This mindfulness not only helps to reduce stress, but can also prevent us going over and over and over the same unhelpful thoughts. When we stop doing that, we can increase our awareness of what’s going on in the world around us.
Mindfulness is all the rage in education. You pretty much can’t go anywhere without someone doing colouring in, meditation, or tuning in to easy-listening music. Sometimes Dan’s class ends up doing mindful colouring for a few minutes because… well, he’s just so into it.
However, Dan has found there’s also another way to practise mindfulness that doesn’t actually require any photocopying or discussions about sharing the red texta. It’s called ‘Outside’. No photocopying or laminating required. Just walk on out and find a space to lie, sit, stand, squat or headstand.
Nature immersion, the simple act of being outside in a natural space, has profound benefits for how our brain works, particularly its ability to be creative and problem-solve.
Today, we’re constantly exposed to a plethora of alerts, alarms and bright lights all designed to grab our direct attention, forcing us to suppress all other distractions. This is literally exhausting, reducing our available mental energy allocated to prolonged focus.
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) demonstrates that by being in natural settings, our brain can essentially relax, with our attention being involuntarily diverted to, or ‘softly fascinated’ by, things like bird song or sunsets. This ‘soft fascination’ replenishes our capacity to pay direct attention, increasing our ability to plan and make critical decisions.
Stopping to smell the roses… and count the clouds
Dan’s class started their ‘nature immersion’ and mindfulness by simply heading outside to their school oval and lying down for two minutes. While some kids found it hard not to check what their friends were doing, stay quiet, or be still, throughout those two minutes every single one of them stopped at some point. Every single one of them had some time to stop, notice, and be that little bit mindful.
When they got back in the classroom, they started sharing things they noticed.
The clouds were twisting and turning.
I didn’t realise how many birds were around our school.
The grass can be rough and soft at the same time.
My shoulders feel so much more relaxed.
Have we always had that many different trees around our yard?
Dan states, “It was pretty great to hear some of the things as they continued to share. They were so reflective and positive… After only two minutes of switching off to remember the amazing and wild world around them, their mood had changed and their brains were engaged.”
Reaping the mental and physical benefits of nature doesn’t take much at all. A recent study suggested that visiting green spaces for as little as 30 minutes per week could reduce cases of depression and high-blood pressure by 7% and 9% respectively. Even glancing out into a natural space from your window can lift your immediate sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction.
Inspiration and empowerment – it takes just one opportunity
In a time when all we seem to hear about is how terrible everything is and the futility of trying to make positive change, for two minutes Dan’s kids had the absolute freedom to switch off and just appreciate.
Dan admits that when they first headed outside, the kids were ridiculously excited. At first they struggled to settle down, find space for themselves and take some time to notice things around them. But, like all new skills and learning, they have continued to become more responsive to it as time has been invested in these opportunities.
What’s exciting is that after their experience, some of the kids, of their own initiative, began talking about starting up ‘Nature Walks’ around school in the morning or afternoon to notice and connect with the wild around them. Students who had not previously tried to take initiative now wanted to lead.
If we’re serious about teaching the leaders of our future that they can make change, imagine possibilities, and see connections within their world, we probably need to start giving them opportunities to experience and practise these things.
After all, the possibilities are just outside the classroom door, so why wouldn’t we try it?
An adapted version of this article also appears on Upgrade Think Learn.
Daniel Steele is a primary school educator and new dad navigating dadhood. He is the founder of Upgrade Think Learn. If you’re interested in more posts by Daniel, you can find him on Twitter, on Facebook, or on Instagram.
Banner image courtesy of Marjorie Bertrand on Unsplash.