Why kids need ‘green time’

With school out, it's a good time to spend more time outdoors! There’s a growing body of evidence that shows time spent in nature, otherwise known as green time, can lead to increased psychological, emotional, and physical well-being.

By encouraging students to explore natural settings, get creative, have fun, and interact with the world around them, they will begin to make connections with nature and achieve personal and academic growth. It can help build a foundation in fields like ecology, biology, environmental science, and more.

Teaching kids to interact with nature also gives them an important sense of place. For example, they learn that trees are different from one another and that every part of the ecosystem has a role. If they feel connected to the land and ecosystem around them, they also begin to understand the impact they have on the natural world.

5 Nature Activities for Outdoor Learning

Give children unstructured time to play in the creek

When we look at design thinking and problem/project-based learning, they all share the common element that learning is exploration. There doesn’t need to be definitive or single answers to things, so students need practice with that. It’s advisable to give kids practice exploring their world in ways that make sense to them.

Plant native plants around your property to show kids how they can impact the natural world

It’s not only about plants. It’s understanding the connection of native plants within the food web. Native plants support native organisms—including insects, the birds who eat the insects, and the animals who eat the birds. All of those things are supported by producers. Plants are our producers, and the primary, secondary and tertiary consumers are all dependent upon them. By establishing this wonderful native base of producers (plants), you automatically support all of the consumers above that.

Take a walk and work together to identify various species of birds

Nature is all about patterns. It’s one of the unifying concepts of science. If students are going to go out and look at things, we encourage them to not only stand back and look at the big picture. It’s so critical to look up close at the macro-level. What are those tiny patterns you can see in the sunlight coming through the leaves of the trees? What organisms are taking advantage of the shade versus the sun?

Find a meadow and look for multiple types of wildflowers

It’s about intentionally noticing diversity. In a meadow, diverse native populations are an indicator of the health of that ecosystem. Kids can judge the health of their ecosystem simply by looking around to see what variety of organisms are there. If you get to the wildflowers, what types of insects are visiting those wildflowers?

Collect leaves and help kids complete tree identification activities

When kids are looking at leaves, they should look at the patterns of the leaves in terms of leaf shape, leaf size, and the veining of the leaf. Rather than the big picture, look at the macro-level. If you’re looking at trees and leaves, this is a great time of year to count all of the caterpillars at head height. Look beyond the tree and see what’s associated with the tree and what’s living in the tree.

The whole essence of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) and the problem-based learning that we’re doing at Milton Hershey School is about removing the silos from learning. We want students to get beyond simply identifying the leaf. If all they’re doing is identifying the leaf, they are coming to one right answer. That’s really exclusive and it doesn’t encourage exploration—it does the exact opposite. It teaches kids that to be successful in science, they need to have the right answer and that’s not what we’re trying to encourage. We’re trying to encourage students to be problem solvers and think outside the box.

By emphasizing how leaf identification relates to some of the other things in the environment, you teach students that to be a successful scientist, they must be an investigator of their world. That means opening up and broadening their perspective, not seeking to get the right answer.

Giving students opportunities to spend time in nature can not only improve their growth mindset, but also advances social and emotional reasoning. If students are out of their comfort zones and confronting new challenges or questions, the multi-sensory experience of green space can help them engage with their surroundings and make focused decisions.