Feeling Nature With Our Senses

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How does your child return from her time outdoors?

Muddy boots, grass stains, cuts, bruises, and a wildness that stays with the child long after she has returned indoors - these are the signs that many parents and educators recognize as the hallmarks of time well-spent in nature. 

While many of us habitually associate outdoor play with rowdyness and general tomfoolery - which are, in themselves, wonderful ways for children to express themselves outside - dinosaur paleontologist, science communicator, and Science World British Columbia President and CEO Scott Sampson wants us to tune into the calmer, quieter side of children's outdoor play. 

Author of How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature, Sampson is a passionate advocate for bridging the human-nature divide, and works tirelessly to educate parents and educators about the incredible benefits of time spent outdoors for our children and youth:  

 "... recent research indicates that experiences in nature are essential for healthy growth. Regular exposure to nature can help relieve stress, depression, and attention deficits. It can reduce bullying, combat obesity, and boost academic scores. Most critical of all, abundant time in natural settings seems to yield long-term benefits in kids’ cognitive, emotional, and social development" - Scott Sampson, PhD, in How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature 

In particular, Sampson encourages adults and children alike to open our senses to the nature around us, and to use all of our senses to extend our awareness into our environment. Doing so helps us relate to the natural world mindfully, which invites calm and quells anxiety. "Deer Ears and Owl Eyes," is one activity that Sampson recommends for tuning into the calmer side of the natural world - which in turn helps us create calm in our own lives. 

Sensory-based mindfulness[1] practices like the ones used in this activity are simple ways that mindfulness can be used to combat anxiety in children and youth[2]. These practices link Alert & Engaged and Secure & Calm Heart-Mind Qualities by directing one's attention to create a state of focus and calm, in which well-being can arise. 

Activity: Deer Ears and Owl Eyes (adapted from Scott Sampson's Blog The Whirpool of Life for Heart-Mind Online)

  • Invite your child into a space outdoors. It could be on your front lawn, a community garden, or deep in the wilderness - so long as you are outside!
  • Sit quietly for a moment, and let your awareness settle on your surroundings.
  • Invite your child to choose a sense - sound, sight, smell, and touch work best, unless you are in an environment with safe edible plants nearby (such as a food garden)
  • Help your child explore the sense inspired by a chosen animal. Use one of the following examples or choose your own: deer ears[3] (deer have excellent hearing); owl eyes[4] (owls can see far and wide); bear nose[5] (bears have a fantastic sense of smell); spider legs[6] (spiders have a particularly sensitive sense of touch)
  • Next time you are in nature, remind your child to use their amazing animal senses! You never know what wonderful suprises they might perceive!

To learn more from Wild Child expert Scott Sampson, as well as from other world-renowned calm experts, join us at The Heart-Mind Conference 2019: The Art  and Science of Calm, hosted in Vancouver, BC, on October 25th, 2019.

In a 2005 open trial, researchers successfully used sensory mindfulness practices, among others, to help children aged 7 & 8 combat their anxiety. 

  • Deer ears: Invite your child can cup their hands behind their ears. Ask them if it helps them pick up more or different sounds. Then, invite them to describe the most distant sound they can hear, and to count the total number of different sounds they can identify. 
  • Owl eyes: Invite kids to soften their vision so that they can see as much as possible in multiple directions. Ask them to look straight ahead and move their outstretched hands forward from behind their heads to find the point where their hands first come into view. What is the most distant thing they can see? 
  • Bear nose: Invite your child to take a deep inhale and exhale. On the next inhale, ask them to breathe in the air slowly, and try to identify a single scent in the air, like overturned dirt, freshly mowed grass, or a blooming flower. Then, help your child describe the scent: is it sweet or sour? Fresh or earthy? Plant-like or animal-like? Soft or strong? Repeat the process for each scent the child can distinguish. How many scents can they describe?
  • Spider legs: Invite you child to bring themselves as close to the ground as possible. This could mean having hands on the ground, sitting down, or even laying on it. Then, if they are comfortable, invite them to close their eyes. Give them a few moments to connect to feeling through their skin. Then, ask them to describe how being that close to the earth makes them feel. Then, with their eyes closed, place found nature objects in their hands, one at a time (eg. pebbles, pine cone, blade of grass, fallen blossom from a flower, a stick, an acorn, even a worm or banana slug if they aren't too squeamish and you can be sure to handle it gently and return it to its habitat when you are finished). Keeping their eyes closed, invite them to describe how the object feels in their hands, and to even venture a guess of what it is! 

Deer ears: Invite your child can cup their hands behind their ears. Ask them if it helps them pick up more or different sounds. Then, invite them to describe the most distant sound they can hear, and to count the total number of different sounds they can identify. 

Owl eyes: Invite kids to soften their vision so that they can see as much as possible in multiple directions. Ask them to look straight ahead and move their outstretched hands forward from behind their heads to find the point where their hands first come into view. What is the most distant thing they can see?

Bear nose: Invite your child to take a deep inhale and exhale. On the next inhale, ask them to breathe in the air slowly, and try to identify a single scent in the air, like overturned dirt, freshly mowed grass, or a blooming flower. Then, help your child describe the scent: is it sweet or sour? Fresh or earthy? Plant-like or animal-like? Soft or strong? Repeat the process for each scent the child can distinguish. How many scents can they describe?

Spider legs: Invite you child to bring themselves as close to the ground as possible. This could mean having hands on the ground, sitting down, or even lying on it. Then, if they are comfortable, invite them to close their eyes. Give them a few moments to connect to feeling through their skin. Then, ask them to describe how being that close to the earth makes them feel. Then, with their eyes closed, place found nature objects in their hands, one at a time (eg. pebbles, pine cone, blade of grass, fallen blossom from a flower, a stick, an acorn, even a worm or banana slug if they aren't too squeamish and you can be sure to handle it gently and return it to its habitat when you are finished). Keeping their eyes closed, invite them to describe how the object feels in their hands, and to even venture a guess of what it is! 

Examples of sensory-based mindfulness activities include describing scents, listening for when a sound begins and ends, and recalling details of objects one has seen with their eyes closed. 

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.