Let Nature Guide You: Movement Ideas for Outdoor Exploration
Some of my fondest memories take me back in time to outdoor places. I was fortunate to live in a part of the world where I was surrounded by forests, mountains, and the ocean. As a child, I was encouraged to get outside regardless of the weather. My parents believed that living and breathing beneath the trees and by the water was deeply important to my growth and development as a child. Therefore, I could be found riding my bike, playing at the park, climbing trees, flying kites, dancing in the rain, tobogganing down snow-packed hills, or walking my dog along deserted beaches near my home. There was no end to the ways I could occupy myself once I stepped outside my front door.
I was raised in an era without smartphones, computers, and other devices to keep my mind distracted for hours on end. Those were also the days when parents told their children to go out and play with friends. Rarely did they know where we were, what we were doing, or whom we were with. We just needed to be home in time for dinner. There was a level of freedom afforded children that has dramatically changed over the years. This beginning became foundational for the rest of my life. Spending time in nature continues to be my “go to” for getting grounded in my body, being at peace in my mind, seeking clarity on a problem, feeling energized when I’m tired, and appreciating the world around me.
Not every child grows up in a place of beauty or is encouraged to develop a relationship with nature. For some, being outside where they live is unsafe. For others, a park, forest, or a beach is an expensive and long bus ride away. Some children spend their entire lives surrounded by concrete, stone, cement, or steel, with little knowledge of the greater landscape beyond their neighbourhood. Their only exposure to nature might be the birds flying by, trees lining their street, and the expanse of sky above them.
As teachers, we can create exciting, restorative, and safe experiences for our students to claim the outdoors as their own. Regardless of where we teach and our current surroundings, we can bring an awareness of the magnificent outdoors to our students. There is something magical that happens when we transition from inside a confined space with floors, walls, desks, chairs, and a ceiling, to an environment that is expansive. When we’re outside, our senses heighten, we often feel better, and we move differently.
Nature is full of mysteries and symbolism that can bring meaning to the lives of our students. Mindfulness, discovery, and play can help them get out of their heads and into their bodies where nature becomes their guide and teacher. The following ideas integrate the body, nature, and movement as a means to see the world around them in new ways. These can be adapted for any age group and physical environment. Depending on the needs of individual students (e.g., mobility considerations), these activities can also be modified to include all bodies and abilities.
1. Let’s Get Sensory
Take your students outside onto the playground or grassy field. They will begin by connecting to their senses. Have them go for a short walk on their own, in the area of the school yard where you’ve taken them. Have them consider the following questions while walking: What are all of the things you see around you? What sounds can you hear? Are there any distinct smells? What do you feel? As the students walk, they can stop, look, and listen. They can touch various things in their environment. When the students gather back together as a class, they can share their findings, which might include neighbourhood and nature sights, sounds, smells, and touch. Next, have students work in partners. One partner is the guide and the other follows. The follower must close their eyes and listen to the directions of the guide. The idea is that the student who is leading their partner must help them to pay even closer attention to nature around them. For example, the guide might ask their partner to stop and listen to the birds, bend down carefully to touch the grass, or feel the warmth of the sun on their face. This is a moving sensory experience and each student gets a turn to be the guide and follower. While this works best when the follower can hold the arm of the guide, it can also be done with social distancing. The guide needs to make sure their partner is safe at all times when they are walking.
2. Nature Photos
Invite students to look around at their outdoor surroundings as if looking through the lens of a camera. They can even hold up their hands to make the rectangular shape of a phone screen (or camera screen) to see all of the nature “photos” around them. For younger students, you can give them the outline of a picture frame (e.g., made out of paper or cardboard) to look through. Have them take mental snapshots at different heights (down low and up high), at different angles (looking down, up, forwards, and sideways), and at different distances (up close and far away). Next, invite students to work in small groups (approximately 5-6 per group) to recreate nature scenes with their bodies. It helps to have a group of volunteers do one for the whole class first with the teacher guiding the process. For example, imagine there is a large tree in your school yard that is surrounded by bushes and there are leaves lying beneath it on the ground. Students could recreate this “photo” where individuals take on the role of the tree, bushes, and leaves.
Young students might be able to create from one to three nature photos, whereas older students can create up to five or six. You can require students to look through a particular “lens” (e.g. different heights, angles, and distance) for each “photo” they create. If they are showing more than one photo at a time, they can create a “slideshow.” Give them specific instructions for transitioning from one photo to the next. Students are encouraged to hold their bodies still for photos (for at least five seconds) before transitioning. Younger students will need more time than older students to create their photos and/or slideshows. The best way to end this activity is through a mini-performance. Let the audience have time to reflect on the different ways each group interpreted their surroundings.
3. The Dancing Outdoors
There are many aspects of nature that can be explored through the body. Students can interpret the ways in which trees, flowers, butterflies, grass, the wind, birds, water, and so forth, are in the world. This can be done individually as an improvisational experience or done in groups where students work together to create a short dance piece. For students to explore nature, they need words and images to help them create. Here are some examples:
Trees: They have deep roots in the earth and long branches that reach for the sky. They can sway in the wind and be very still. Some trees are full of leaves in the warm weather and bare when it’s cold. Trees can be tall, small, wide, and narrow. Some trees are prickly like pines and droopy like willows. Many trees bear fruit such as coconuts, apples, and walnuts.
Water: It can be a trickling stream, a rapidly moving river, a calm lake, or a large ocean that waves and ripples. Water can flow over, around, and through its environment. It can also be very still and reflect its surroundings like a mirror. Water can drip, drop, splash, and spray. In the cold, water becomes solid and in the heat it evaporates.
Sun: It is a giant ball of fire in the universe that warms the earth. We see it in the day as it rises from the east and it disappears at night as it sets in the west. At certain times of the year, we are close to the sun and other times we are far away. Like the earth, the sun rotates on its axis. The sun is round like a circle. It can appear to be yellow, orange, and red.
Wind: It can feel like a gentle breeze or blow like a fast moving freight train. The wind knows how to change directions. It can blow high and low, it can swirl and dive. The wind can also move at different speeds from slow to very, very fast. We can feel the wind tickle our face and rustle leaves on the trees. It can also blow down houses and carry away cars.
TEACHER TIP: Make sure that students can relate to the aspect of nature they are exploring based on where they live, their personal experiences, and what they have been exposed to.
Traci L. Scheepstra, Ph.D., is the CEO/Founder of Embodied Learnings. Want to know more about her work in education? Read here!