Reposted for the benefit of your students and your own well-being: Whether you believe in Nature Deficit Disorder or not, I think all of us have to admit that people, children in particular, spend much less time in nature than we used to. Our history books record the pivotal events of human civilizations, but lifestyle changes often fall beneath the radar of contemporary reflection.
Look around and take notice of all the young necks bent towards their screens. Try and remember, or attempt to imagine the dirt covered childhoods of generations that have come before, when cloud watching, plant picking, and fort building was not just common, but was as normal as eating three meals a day, or getting a good night of sleep. A seriously consistent pattern has recently, in the grander scope of human development, been perhaps unconsciously severed.
It seems futile to point fingers and blame ourselves for the removal of nature from our daily lives. Whatever the causes, modernity, and all the luxuries that come with it, have extracted a heavy payment. The mass scale disconnection from nature has happened so quickly that analysis of this phenomenon has become only a relatively recent development.
My own journey towards mindfulness training may have started with my personal longing to return to the woods, waves, mountains, and breezes of time outside. It was the Tracker School, in my home state of New Jersey, which gave me tools as an adult to reconnect with the natural connections I once had as a child. At least one of my students reads The Tracker, by Tom Brown Jr. each year for our seventh grade memoir project; the same text which helped give me voice and validation to express my need to disconnect from industrial progress and reconnect with my senses.
I’m a real teacher who doesn’t have time for too much educational theory. I prefer tangible tools, which I can try out right away in the classroom. Three of the gifts I received from Tom Brown’s Tracker School curriculum are Wide Angle Vision, Fox Walking, and The Blind Drum Stalk. I have recently incorporated these sensory-based activities into my mindfulness class and have had really positive results.
I brought the class outside and asked everyone to stand against the wall of our school. I started with my left foot forward and showed the kids how I kept my hands at my center; almost as if I was preparing to walk a tight rope. My right heel lifted and my toes pointed straight down. I discussed the image of a string pulling up my right knee. As my foot lifted my toes dangled over the ground and I kept my eyes forward and on the students. Four points of contact needed to happen, and four points alone. It wasn’t difficult for the kids to pay attention to such a funny scene; me, stork like, balancing before them. The little toe touched first, then the big toe, followed by the outside heel, and finally the inside heel. The whole step took almost sixty- seconds. Suddenly, the whole group was moving, creeping, stalking towards me. Nature sounds came alive as their bodies and minds slowed down. The fox walking session lasted ten minutes, but time itself had finally slowed.
Later, I demonstrated wide-angle, or “splatter vision.” By holding my arms up I demonstrated the challenge of seeing my hands in both peripheries at the same time. This simple exercise used to bring tears to my computer-tired eyes. Now it allows me to see the whole group at once, and to enjoy the panorama, instead of just the specific.
Finally we built up to the drum stalk. Every kid pairs up with a “guardian” to keep them safe. One student is blindfolded and the other silently protects them from running into obstacles. I moved away from the group and drummed, loudly but slowly. The slow stalk began, only to culminate ten minutes later with the whole group crowding around the consistent beat.
These activities, and there are many like them, allow us at the minimum, to turn off our constant stream of thinking, planning, and preparing, and to turn on our senses. Nature awakens around us and our senses become surprisingly sharp and attuned when introduced to a few outdoor skills that our ancient ancestors would have probably smiled upon.
Thank you for reading and for sharing.
Nicholas Philliou, 7th grade humanities teacher in Durango, Colorado