Your Brain in Nature
In the weeks leading up to our Spreading Our Branches gathering on April 1st, we’ll feature the voices of place-based educators from around the Metro Vancouver area. This week’s feature highlights the work of Soaring Eagle Nature School and the voice of Jenna Rudolph, the director of this nature-based school for children ages 4-18. The school focuses on survival skills, naturalist skills, and deep nature connection.
Does your brain know that nature exists? For children who grow up jumping in puddles, sliding in snow, and listening to birdsong, the answer is definitely yes. However, in urban settings and with busy lives, it can be hard to access natural spaces regularly, and children can grow up without regular doses of what Richard Louv calls “vitamin N.” How do they perceive nature, and how do they connect with it? Nature nurtures our minds and hearts, and Jenna Rudolph of Soaring Eagle Nature School is keenly interested in how place-based learning creates changes in people’s brains, allowing them to connect more deeply with natural places.
To Rudolph, engaging in nature-based learning is about developing brain patterns that allow children to recognize, connect with, and value nature. She says that children may come to Soaring Eagle’s programs with a fear of the forest or a feeling that the forest isn’t useful for anything. Within a few weeks, the children begin to feel safe and move away from these feelings and toward a deeper connection. “When children learn that the forest can provide medicine or shelter, they build a connection that’s real and tangible.”
Rudolph says that when we create brain patterns that include the natural world, this directly affects how we perceive the world and how we act within it. “Humans are hardwired for connection with people and the natural world,” she says, but if someone doesn’t have a brain pattern for nature, they haven’t activated that wiring: it’s as if "their brain hasn’t yet realized that nature exists." Nature connection not only shows up in children’s behaviour outdoors, it influences their behaviour in other parts of their lives as well. Rudolph says that parents often come up to her and say, “I don’t know what happened, but after a day outside, my child came home, helped with dinner, and cleaned his room.” Nature helps people feel ready to care for other parts of their home and community as well.
Natural settings can also be an easier learning environment for children with a wide variety of learning and behavioural differences. Rudolph says that many children who’ve struggled in school or who have a behavioral diagnosis come to Soaring Eagle Nature School and integrate like any other child. In a less overstimulating environment and in a venue where they can use their bodies, children can connect easily with other people and with nature.
Nature is not quiet, but it features different noises than those in an indoor classroom. In one of the first years of our Fresh Air Learning program, a four-year-old came up to me after the winter break. “I love it here. It’s so quiet,” he said. While he struggled with the loud noises of indoor classes and social events, he loved the forest, where the most dominant noises were birds, rain, and the voices of other children. For children with anxiety or sensory processing differences, the soundscape of the outdoor learning environment, combined with smaller ratios and the ability to have free time in the natural world helps children feel more comfortable and able to connect to others more easily.
Rudolph says that place-based education can give a gift to children: unstructured free time in nature and the opportunity to build meaningful connections to something that feels bigger than themselves.
Have you experienced this ease of connection in your place-based programs? How have children with learning or behavioural differences found success in your program? We invite you to share your stories of how outdoor learning has changed the way that children in your classes connect with each other and with nature.
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For those who are interested in indigenous food systems and how they connect to place-based learning, the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty has consistently held the space since 2006 for the generation of a body of knowledge within food systems discourse, that shines a light on the myriad ways that Indigenous hunting, fishing and gathering societies are persisting into the 21st century. Listen to a podcast conversation between Dawn Morrison, Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty and Tammy Lea Meyer.