The COVID-19 pandemic is understandably creating high anxiety and stress for all. 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 must stay away from school or work.
Many studies show that spending regular time outdoors improves both our physical and mental health and improves concentration. So, outdoor time can be especially valuable during these trying times. In fact, the Irish government has been encouraging families to spend time outdoors during this pandemic. Fresh air is good for us all, and it is much easier to maintain a minimum distance of 6 feet from one another outdoors than indoors.
Teachers in Maine are scrambling to create virtual learning opportunities and parents are trying to come up with engaging activities for children stuck at home. Here are some simple outdoor learning activities to try in your own backyard or a nearby preserve.
1. Color Matching
If you have any colorful magazines, construction paper or paint swatch cards on hand, head outside to find a perfect match to those colors in nature — one color at a time. You’ll be amazed by how many colors are out there, even in early spring. Afterward, you could create a rainbow or other nature art with what you find. You can even photograph your creation to share on your favorite social media platform.
2. Make models and nature art
For a hands-on, imaginative activity, you can build models of different things with found natural objects like sticks, rocks and leaves. Some prompts to consider: make a model of a healthy ecosystem; make a model of what you want your future community to look like; or build a model of a particular animal’s habitat. To inspire even more creativity, make art using what you find in nature without a prompt and see what develops. Check out the work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy for inspiration.
3. Nature journaling
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 picking a special spot outside to revisit and journal from daily. Here are some sample prompts:
— Record phenology observations. What evidence can you find outdoors of the changing season? You could write or draw the new birds you are seeing or hearing, the new plant growth emerging or the animals you are finding evidence of. You don’t have to know what you’re looking at or hearing to be able to notice that things are changing.
— Read an excerpt from a naturalist writer such as Rachel Carson or Henry David Thoreau, then write about a spot in nature in the style of that writer.
— Start writing with just these phrases to guide you: I wonder…, I notice…, Today I feel grateful for…, Being in nature makes me feel…
— Draw or write as many observations as you can. What do you hear, see, smell and feel outdoors?
— Paint or draw what you see using found materials. For example, use dirt to draw browns, last summer’s highbush cranberries for reds, tufts of emerging grasses for greens, and charcoal for black.
Named by National Park Service naturalist Susan Rudy, a BioBlitz is an activity where you aim to identify as many different living things as you can in a particular area. You can use field guides to help you identify things or simply record things that you know are different from one another. You can also try mobile apps like Merlin, iNaturalist, or Seek to help you with identification.
Compare what you find in different ecosystems, like in the field versus the forest, or in wet areas versus dry areas. This activity can easily lead to math or science projects that involve the creation of graphs or research projects. You could even upload what you find and get input about the identification of different things through a free app like iNaturalist. For younger children, they can simply count the number of different living things in different areas to compare.
5. Create a sound map
On the center of a piece of paper, draw a tiny you or a smiley face to represent you. Sit in one spot silently and listen to the sounds around you. On your paper, draw or write what sounds you hear, and try to place those sounds where you think they’re coming from relative to where you are sitting. For example, if you hear a bird singing far away, draw it near the edge of your paper. If you hear water trickling near you, draw it near you on the paper. Do you hear more human-made sounds or other sounds? Try this during different times of day and different weather, even when it’s raining. Just bundle up.
6. Explore tiny worlds
Discover tiny worlds in nature. Use a ruler or small square to focus on only one tiny spot. Get down on the ground and look really closely from an ant’s eye view — turn over leaves, dig gently into the soil and peer between blades of grass. Write, draw or simply explore with the following questions in mind:
— How many creatures can you find that live in this tiny world?
— How many different homes or habitat types can you find here?
— What kind of animal or plant do you think would really like this spot?
Hopefully the above ideas inspire parents at home with children and inspire some additions to remote lesson plans. If you are looking for more ideas, here are three books to explore:
— Vitamin N: 500 Ways to Enrich 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 Play and Skill-building Fun for Every Season, both by Jane Worroll and Peter Houghton
Hazel Stark is the Co-Founder of Maine Outdoor School, L3C, based in Milbridge. Maine Outdoor School offers custom, standards-aligned outdoor learning opportunities for schools, organizations and families primarily in Washington and Hancock counties. Hazel is also a Registered Maine Guide and co-produces a radio show about the Maine outdoors called The Nature of Phenology, which airs on WERU-FM at 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays. You can learn more and contact Hazel at www.maineoutdoorschool.org.