The SONG Program - Restoring Meadows and Practicing Mindfulness
The numerous benefits of environmental education and quality outdoor time for children have been researched and proven, time and again (read more here, here, here, and here if interested). However, on a day-to-day basis, it can be hard to capture and record these benefits in a quantitative way. We certainly notice changes in the students we work with after they've spent a morning or afternoon with us, and often these observations can be captured in a qualitative way. For example:
On a recent autumn day, 28 second graders participating in our SONG Program follow me down the Riverwalk Trail as we head towards the meadow located near the Bladensburg Wetlands. As part of our meadow restoration work, these students are going to assist with native seed collection. 65 degrees and sunny, the sky arches over us, a dome of blue without a cloud in sight. The weather couldn't be any better.
We make good progress until about halfway through our walk, at which point a ripple of complaints begin to spread throughout the second grade class behind me. Although I am positive that this half-mile walk amounts to less than a quarter of the energy these students expend during a normal recess period, they aren't used to walking for such long distances. Behind me I hear multiple versions of, "Are we there yet? I'm tired!"
I begin to address their complaints and attempt to distract them from their own discomfort. "What a beautiful day to be outside!" I say. "Can you hear the crickets and grasshoppers chirping?"
One by one, the students look at me quizzically and ask, "Crickets? Ms. Maddie, we don't hear any crickets!"
I consider that perhaps these students don't know what crickets and grasshoppers sound like. They wouldn't be the first children I've met who are mostly unfamiliar with the insect life that surrounds them. "Can't you hear them?" I ask. "They are singing! It sounds like chirp-chirp-chirp." I make some feeble and humbling attempts to mimic the beautiful sounds that crickets and grasshoppers make when they rub their wings together (or, in the case of grasshoppers, hind legs against their wings).
When the students still can't hear the chorus of chirps that surrounds us, it occurs to me that the issue it not that these students don't know what crickets sound like.
They simply can't quiet their young minds long enough to hear what is happening all around them.
For the remainder of our walk to the meadow, I agonize over this while I offer up what feels like empty assurances, "Don't worry second graders! We are almost there! You are doing a great job!"
When we arrive at the meadow, the class of second graders remains fidgity and restless while I explain our next steps. I show students the indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) we will be collecting, hand out cups to collect seeds, and demonstrate the best way to remove the seeds from the stem of the plant. Looking out at the meadow from where they stand on the edge, they remain hesitant. Dubious stares abound.
Recognizing that this group might need some encouragement, I stride into the meadow and exclaim with excitement, "Here is some indian grass! Let's collect it!" It only takes a few more steps and words of encouragement for students to leave their doubts behind. Before I know it, they are heading head-first into clumps of goldenrod, boneset, and indian grass that are taller than they are. They grab indian grass by the fistful and are reminded that the best way to collect is gently - just a pinch between thumb and forefinger. They delight in the feel of the soft seeds as their cups begin to fill and proudly show me how much they have collected.
When we finish in the meadow, we begin our return journey down the Riverwalk Trail. To my surprise and delight, the same group of second graders doesn't complain, not even once. Instead, they exclaim with excitement as birds fly from one side of the trail to the other, stop to examine caterpillars that have come to rest in the middle of the trail, collect the cottonwood leaves that dot the path in front of us ("Ms. Maddie, they are shaped liked hearts!"), gather the tiny, inconspicuous flowers of asters and smartweeds, and . . . they hear the crickets.
It turns out that all these students needed to quiet their minds was time outdoors to just . . . be.
One second grader, slipping his small hand into mine, says with the quiet seriousness that young children have, "Ms. Maddie, today is a really good day."
I am reassured. Not only have we engaged these students in meaningful, positive restoration work and taught them a thing or two about the river and surrounding environment, but we have provided them the time and space they need to quiet their minds.
Children need this (so do adults, but that's for another day). A quiet mind is necessary for students to successfully learn all of the academic subjects that are required of them and to apply what they have learned in creative and innovative ways. A quiet mind is also necessary for students to master all of the socio-emotional skills they will need to thrive as adults: empathy, compassion, cooperation, attentiveness, self-regulation, resilience, responsiveness v. reactiveness, etc.
Spending time outdoors provides children with the time and space they need to quiet their minds so that learning and growth can occur.
If there was a way to easily measure the benefits these types of experiences have on the lives of children, I imagine that funding and support for these types of experiences would abound. I remain hopeful!