Being outside in the great outdoors is highly motivating for children and teens. There is so much to explore, learn, and be curious about. It’s one of the reasons why using nature to build social-emotional skills just makes sense.
Spending more time outside is good for our physical and emotional well-being. Research even tells us that spending more time in nature can lower blood pressure, reduce stress, improve mood, and increase our ability to focus. Nature also allows kids to be inquisitive about the world around them.
In addition to all these positives, spending time in nature also creates a perfect pathway to build social-emotional skills. Just a few of these skills include coping strategies, empathy, attention, confidence, relationships, mindfulness, and self-awareness. Whether it is with nature walks, outdoor mindful breathing, scavenger hunts, or free play time, there are countless strategies for integrating SEL skills with the natural world.
If you or your learners are nature lovers, or you just want to change up your routines, give some of these nature activities a try.
Use a nature walk to practice mindfulness and coping skills to manage stress. They can also be a place for kids to connect with themselves and build self-awareness. Best of all, nature walks require no prep; just walk and notice what you see, hear, smell, and hear around you. You really never know what you’ll see when you pay attention!
You can help students build confidence by allowing them to lead the group along a trail.
Outdoor Mindful Breathing
Mindful breathing is a critical coping skill necessary for managing emotions and coping with stress. While it’s true that you could try any mindful breathing exercise outside, some are really tailored for being outdoors.
Bubble Breathing – Using bubbles (you can get these at the local dollar store), slowly breathe in and breathe out to make the bubbles.
Smell the Flowers – Find flowers and slowly breathe in to smell them. Then, slowly breathe out. Note that flowers don’t have to be ones on the ground. Try to find flowering trees and bushes too!
Pinwheel Breathing – Using pinwheels (you can grab these online or in any craft store), slowly breathe in and breathe out to make the pinwheel move.
If you need more ideas, give these mindful breathing exercises a try.
Seeing wildlife in action is a great way to practice mindfulness as a coping strategy. It also strengthens focus and improves mood. For watching some types of wildlife, it helps to have a pair of binoculars, but you can try without too. Look for songbirds, hawks, butterflies, and squirrels.
For a different experience, use magnifying glasses to look closer at ants, beetles, and other small insects.
After watching wildlife, feel free to ask: What did you notice? What was most interesting? Did anything surprised you? What questions do you have?
Animal Live Cams
Getting outside isn’t always an option. For times like this, animal live cams can be a great tool. Watching animals (and their young) can build empathy and provide opportunities for perspective-taking. They can also encourage learners to be inquisitive. Just knowing that the class will be checking the live cam after an assignment gives some learners something to look forward to, building motivation along the way.
San Diego Zoo provides a number of live animal cams including koalas, polar bears, penguins, elephants, tigers, and more.
Grab the clipboards and colored pencils for some outdoor coloring time. Coloring on its own is mindful and calming. You can ultimately use coloring pages or have students draw their own pictures, but you can add an extra twist with color by positive affirmation worksheets.
Outdoor Read Alouds
Spend time under a tree and read a short story. Some of my favorite short stories and books are ideal to talk about SEL topics at the very same time. Just a few titles include:
- Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae
- Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
- Matthew’s Dream by Leo Lionni
- Salt in His Shoes by Deloris Jordan
Use Nature Brain Breaks
In between tasks, try nature brain breaks. Brain breaks are an excellent way to refresh our minds, but they also can teach skills for mindfulness and self-regulation. Use these brain breaks with a nature theme to get started.
Gardening and yard work are an excellent way to work on organization skills by cleaning up. In addition, gardening helps build empathy, respect, and responsibility. Some simple tasks to try:
Plant flowers or trees – Choose a space and plant flowers, shrubs, or trees. This is a fantastic way to give back to the community and feel connected.
Plant vegetables – Make a plan to decide what veggies you would like and plant them together. This also provides an opportunity to keep coming back and taking care of the garden.
Weed – Put gloves on and pull up weeds in a garden area.
Rake– Grab some rakes (and other tools) and clean up an area.
Scavenger hunts provide a fun and engaging way to practice mindfulness. Have students find various nature objects such as acorns, flowers, birds, and insects. Have students draw or describe the item they find before moving on to the next.
You can add problem-solving skills to a scavenger hunt, but encouraging kids to find something round, something smaller than a pencil, or something that starts with s.
Use these pre-made outdoor (and indoor) mindfulness scavenger hunts to give it a try with your learners.
Free Play Outside
Give time to run, walk, and play with friends to provide necessary social interaction time for young learners. Sometimes unstructured and unexpected experiences can provide the best chances for children to learn, grow, and build self-awareness skills.
Look at Animal Pictures
Use real-life photos to connect with nature all over the world. Children, teens, and even adults often love seeing photos of wild creatures like owls, tigers, bears, and eagles. Use animal photos paired with positive affirmations to build confidence.
Photography itself can be a mindful activity. Try pairing it with other SEL topics. For example, ask students to take a picture of something outside that brings them joy, or something that reminds them of their childhood. These pictures can spark meaningful conversations that strengthen social-emotional skills.
Do a Park Clean-Up
Spend time cleaning up litter (with protective gear) in a local park. This activity helps learners feel connected with the community and develop a sense of respect for nature.
Have a Picnic
Host an outdoor picnic to allow students to build skills for using manners and getting along with others.
Take the Learning Outside
Some academic topics can be taken outside too! If you are learning about shapes, have students find and draw different shapes in nature. If you are working on paragraph writing, choose an object or animal to write about.
What other nature ideas would you add to the list?