A growing body of research reveals tangible and measurable social and emotional benefits for students and teachers when nature-based lessons and spending time outdoors are incorporated in students’ studies. In this episode of Keystone Education Radio, host Annette Stevenson speaks with Shannon Fredebaugh-Siller, the Community Engagement Programs Manager at Heritage Conservancy, on the programs her organization is offering to students in that region and how everyone across the commonwealth, from students, school leaders, teachers and parents, can benefit from more time in nature.
In this episode, you’ll discover:
- The value of incorporating nature in today’s educational settings
- How nature helps improve social connections and self-reflection
- Activities that parents, teachers and others can use in their day-to-day schedules to use nature as a tool for social-emotional learning
“For the last 60 plus years, we have assisted in the protection of over 15,500 acres of open space, forest areas, wetlands, and other critical habitat, as well as protecting historic buildings.”
“We started to hear things from the students, just their amazement of being outside and then comments from the teachers about the changes they saw in how their students were responding to the programs and the activities while they were outside.”
“There’s something about conversation surrounding nature, time outside, things we like and don’t like about outside or nature that really open up those doors for social connection and other types of self-reflection.”
“Can we work to provide information or simple activities for families to be able to continue the benefits at home?”
“Something as simple as stepping outside and closing your eyes for a moment to listen to the breeze move the leaves around can offer kind of that moment of like reset that you might need.”
Q: First off, would you tell us a little bit about the Heritage Conservancy and the work that you do in your role?
A: Yeah, you covered some of it in your introduction, but Heritage Conservancy is a non-profit and we’re based in southeast Pennsylvania with our core mission being to preserve and protect natural areas and historic places. So this means that for the last 60 plus years, we have assisted in the protection of over 15,500 acres of open space, forest areas, wetlands, and other critical habitat, as well as protecting historic buildings.
Q: That’s a lot to cover. That’s a lot to be mindful of.
A: It sure is.
Q: And so what about the pilot program that you began with Bristol Township and the district of Philadelphia? What is that all about? And then maybe how were you inspired to bring that to the schools?
A: Yeah, so for our work, a lot of what we’ve done in the last five or six years has really tied into my work as the community engagement programs manager, really connecting people with those places that we’re protecting. And a lot of this program, the buildup was a long time in the making when we first acquired the Croydon Woods Nature Preserve, which is an 80-acre forested property directly next to Keystone Elementary School, which is part of the Bristol Township School District. So through conversations with teachers and administrators, we started co-creating some programs to get the teachers and the students to utilize the forest and for us to work on providing field trips for the students.
And then just through those field trips, we started to hear things from the students, just their amazement of being outside and then comments from the teachers about the changes they saw in how their students were responding to the programs and the activities while they were outside. And with those conversations, it just evolved that we started to come up with some thoughts on ways to support the students and their needs. And there’s so much research now out about all of that social and emotional connection with nature and the health benefits that it just kind of evolved from there. And this year was a great time to try and pilot it amid everything that’s been going on.
HOST: So in preparation for the podcast, we decided to do some quick research for ourselves, and there is a lot of work behind this topic. It’s not just a trend or a nice thought, but there is real scientific backing on the power of nature as support for our emotional wellbeing. Just Google “SEL” or “nature” and you will find dozens of scholarly articles that tout the power of nature in developing social and emotional skills, and the programs doing that work can be found across the country and the world over.
Take Pennsylvania state parks for example. In 2014, the state had already designated four state parks as environmental education centers, conducting in-depth programming for students and other visitors. In 2017, 23 environmental education centers in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey formed a new alliance to create opportunities for students and learners to explore and engage in nature through hands-on activities. And each year, we are seeing more programs pop up all over the place. Now, back to the conversation with Shannon.
Q: So we hear a lot these days in different ways about social-emotional learning. What aspects of social-emotional learning are the kids gaining from participating in this program?
A: The research out about all the mental, physical, and emotional benefits about connecting with nature, it’s just the body of evidence is growing and it’s not just for students. It’s for people of all ages. And even views of nature out a classroom window or pictures of nature or videos can have all sorts of positive and calming effects. So each of the activities that we incorporate for the teachers to utilize has a nature component, whether it’s a visual or actually getting outside. And then it’s also got that social and emotional element. So some of them include social awareness or self-awareness, self-management. And there’s something about conversation surrounding nature, time outside, things we like and don’t like about outside or nature that really open up those doors for social connection and other types of self-reflection.
Q: You mentioned the view out the window. I think it’s interesting how it’s evolved over the years. I think the view out the window used to be seen as a distraction for students. And of course, I’m going back some years, but I think that used to be seen in a slightly different way. And now, as you mentioned, not just students, but adults. I think we, as adults, we can recognize the benefit of having a window as we work, having that view to the outdoors and natural light. So certainly, stands to reason, all that you’re saying, as far as the benefits.
HOST: We were intrigued by the notion that in the past, windows with views were considered a disturbance or a challenge to keep students’ attention. But today that old way of thinking is better left in the past. Many leaders in SEL are encouraging teachers to bring their students outdoors, and for good reason. Research has shown a link between engaging in pro-environmental activities and positive behavior.
We know that engaging with nature does helps us engage with our senses. It supports a healthy self-image, and at the very least, it gets us off our screens. But beyond that, connecting to the world around us give us an opportunity to understand our role and impact in the natural world. Service activities give students a real-world understanding of concepts such as recycling, conservation and environmental stewardship.
Plus, we are seeing emerging research that highlights the potential impact of COVID-19 on learning loss. The challenges of the pandemic have brought student mental wellbeing to the forefront, with children displaying increases in depression, anxiety and stress. COVID has only made the need for nature-based SEL even more evident and the results that much more precious to those who practice it.
Q: Are there any plans to expand this program?
A: So our first step after last year is to improve upon what we’ve already created based on teacher input. And then our next school is to start to work with additional teachers and possibly other school districts in this upcoming year. And we’d like to incorporate more family resources as well. So can we work to provide information or simple activities for families to be able to continue the benefits at home?
Q: And so our listeners are across the state, so they may not be able to easily visit or access one of your properties, but what are some of the ways that our listeners, whether parents, educators, or other school leaders can begin to incorporate nature as a tool for social-emotional learning? Do you have suggestions in that?
A: So the first thing to remember is that nature is literally everywhere. So I would encourage people to think about what they can find in their own yard, on their city block, a local park around their school yard. So start there, right where you’re living, where your school is at. Something as simple as stepping outside and closing your eyes for a moment to listen to the breeze move the leaves around can offer kind of that moment of like reset that you might need.
And then with the internet there’s of course so many great virtual tours of beautiful places across the country. We have a few virtual tours for our Quakertown Swamp, Croydon Woods and Bristol Marsh Nature Preserves. And then also on our website, we have a whole new series that was developed in the last year called Our At Home With Nature Series. And there are a variety of free resources that are videos, activities. Some of them tie in very well with certain state curriculum items, but they also offer some great views and sounds of nature. The mindfulness moment with water, I have heard is very peaceful. And some people have said they would like to use it to help them go to sleep in the evenings.
Q: Yes. That white noise, that kind of quiet white noise.
A: Right. Right.
Q: And so those can be found on your website, you said?
A: They sure can.
HOST: We wanted our listeners to know a little more about the resources available through Heritage Conservancy, so we checked them out ourselves. There are more than 20 activities and videos to explore. Be sure to check them out in your home or in your classroom. You can find the link to all of them in the resources tab on this episode’s landing page. We would love to know what you think about it. Which ones are your favorites or which ones do you have on your schedule to try? Connect with us by commenting on our social media posts!
Shannon Fredebaugh-Siller works to connect people of all ages to the natural and historic wonders on Heritage Conservancy’s preserved properties. She develops innovative cross-curriculum educational programs in partnership with local schools and works to provide moments of awe in nature for individuals, partner organizations, and students through community programming. Collaborating with communities and across regional watershed-wide initiatives, Shannon helps to connect the local work that Heritage Conservancy does to broader environmental initiatives. Shannon holds a B.A. in Zoology and Environmental Studies from Ohio Wesleyan University and an M.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Shannon has worked on research projects ranging from wildlife behavior and habitat use to species diversity in biofuel agricultural systems and many more.