There is a growing body of research showing that time in nature is essential for our mental and physical health. Incorporating green breaks – just 5-10 minutes interacting with nature – can help refocus our students’ attention, reset their minds to move on to a new task, and refresh their moods…and ours as well. For more on the benefits of time in nature, see this recent article from Frontiers in Psychology and the research library of the Children & Nature Network.
Here are 8 simple green break ideas to try:
Watching a tree change throughout the seasons is a great way to connect with nature. Choose a tree in your schoolyard or playground, or any place your students spend time on a regular basis, and ask your kids to give it a name. We did this at home with maple tree in the front yard, which our son named “April” (not after the month, but after the character on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). In the mornings on the way to the car, one of us will say, “Let’s go check on April.” So far, we’ve noticed some things about this tree that we have never noticed before, like all of the red buds on the tree contain 5 small parts and inside of them is a small green leaf. For more ideas on befriending a tree, check out Tinkergarten’s Befriend A Tree activities.
Set up several different kinds of bird feeders and with various types of feed near a window at home or at school. Notice the different types of birds that visit the feeders. Kids enjoy learning the names of birds and feel a connection to them when they begin to recognize the birds in the area. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has free mini-posters you can download and print that show pictures and names of the birds in your area. We tape the posters right on the window where we can see our feeders. It’s fun to figure out what types of birds we are seeing and whether they are male or female.
Whether you plant something in the ground or in a small pot, getting your hands in the dirt, watering, and caring for a plant provides a meaningful connection with nature. You can plant a tree as a class or each student can have their individual potted plant to care for.
Go outdoors and find a plant, seed, or insect and have your students come up with a name for it. For example, you could ask them, “If you were the first person to ever see this, what name would you give it?” Encourage them to take time to consider the color, shape, smell, size, and texture before they decide on a name. Later, you could help them do a Google image search to find out what it is really called. Find other naming activities in my previous blog, Poke-a-nuts and Dandipuffs: Naming Things in Nature.
A syntu is a type of poem usually written about nature. It has a simple five line format that requires the writer to take the time to observe a natural object using multiple senses, think about how that natural object makes them feel, and come up with another name for the object. Download a syntu template and have your students write one about a natural object of their choice.
Place hula hoops on the ground to section off small areas for students to observe. (You might borrow them from the physical education teacher.) Give each student a hand lens, and ask them to use them to look closely at the natural area inside the hoop. Students might be surprised to find many small natural things, such as insects, pill bugs, pebbles, seeds, and plants in that small area. We often miss these tiny natural things as we walk through the schoolyard, so it is fun to zero in on just the hula hoop area so we can notice the small wonders. Students can draw what they observe or just share their observations in a small group.
There are many wonderful picture books about natural objects and places. To make these books even more meaningful to children, give them an experience with the natural object or place first, and then read the book. That way, you can refer to their experience as you read. The Next Time You See books are designed in this way. On the first page, students are encouraged to interact with the natural objects – tossing maple seeds, watching clouds, observing the moon – then when they read the rest of the book, they can think back to their own experience with the natural object. This makes the information more personal and therefore more meaningful.
Let your students in on the benefits of green time. Explain that scientists are finding out that time in nature can help kids (and adults) refocus their attention, relieve stress, and improve our mental and physical health. See if your students have ideas for green breaks that you could use as a class. Explain that green breaks are different from recess. The purpose of a green break is to interact with nature. Green breaks are usually quiet activities where you use your senses to observe and connect with nature. Make a running list of some of their green breaks and try them throughout the school year!
I would love to hear some of your ideas for green breaks. Share them on the Next Time You See facebook page!
Emily Morgan is the author of the Next Time You See series from NSTA Press.