Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a few clear indicators that spring is finally on its way.
Listen, I’m not trying to hate on winter. Winter is a great month that offers opportunities for being active that I simply cannot enjoy at other times of the year (well, at least not without having to travel significantly). I’ll miss taking my kids tobogganing, going snowshoeing with my family, or hitting up the local ski slopes.
That being said, there is something that is just straight-up magical about spring! Despite its frequent rain showers and its mixed bag of temperatures for the first few months, spring brings a sense of hope as it comes around every year.
With this hope and better weather comes an inherent desire to get outside. As humans, we were never meant to be indoor creatures. There’s a part of us that will forever be wild and long for the outdoors. It’s our wild side that makes us want to breathe fresh air, gaze at the stars, and get lost in the woods.
For all of these reasons and more, nature is our original happy place. It’s where we can find adventure, peace, and health.
That’s not to say that everyone loves getting outside. For many, their original connection to nature has been lost over the years. This lack of connectedness to the natural world can have a negative impact on their overall well-being.
In this post, I’d like to explore the importance of nature connectedness, discuss how we can support it, and share a simple activity that can help jumpstart your students’ desire to get outside.
Nature connectedness is defined as “an individual’s experiential sense of oneness with the natural world” (Mayer & Frantz, 2004). It’s the degree to which we feel that we are a part of nature and not beings who live outside of it. In other words, having a high level of connectedness with nature means that nature becomes part of our identity.
This level of connection with the natural world is associated with a wide variety of benefits that should be right up any physical educator’s alley:
For one, spending time in nature is associated with higher levels of physical activity. Every hour spent outdoors is associated with seven additional minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), 762 steps, and 13 fewer minutes of sedentary time (Larouche et el., 2016). Increased MVPA levels can help improve heart health, strengthen bones and muscles, boost self-esteem, and maintain healthy body weight (ParticipACTION, 2020).
Research suggests that connectedness to nature can lead to improvements in mental health as it is related to aspects of psychological well-being and low somatic anxiety (i.e. physical manifestations of anxiety) (Lawton et al., 2017). Time spent outside is also linked to improvements in attention and cognition (Faber Taylor & Kuo, 2009).
Finally, there is also evidence that suggests that connectedness to nature can support social wellness. In a Canadian study, researchers discovered that every hour spent outdoors per day was associated with a 31% reduction in the odds of reporting peer relationship problems and a 22% lower odds of reporting psychosocial difficulties. (Larouche et Al., 2016).
If the benefits of nature connectedness are undeniable, then how can we – as physical educators – help support its development through our physical education programs?
The Pathways To Nature Connectedness
According to Lumbert, there are five pathways that can be tapped into to help support nature connectedness (Lumber et al., 2017).
These pathways represent different types of relationships that we develop with the natural world (Richardson et al., 2020). The five pathways include:
- Contact through the senses: How we tune into nature through our senses.
- Emotion: The emotional sensation of feeling alive when in nature.
- Beauty: Being mindful of the natural beauty around us.
- Meaning: Allowing nature to help us develop a sense of meaning in our lives.
- Compassion: Our desire to care for nature and preserve it for future generations.
These pathways can be used as a framework to help us identify and develop lessons, units, and/or other interventions that can help us support our students’ connectedness to nature.
Although there are a TON of different ways that we can approach this, I’d like to spend the rest of this post focusing on one that is near and dear to my heart:
A Case For Birding In Physical Education
Everybody’s got a pandemic hobby, right?
My brother got into birding after he wrote a story on it a few years back. After making fun of him for it for the longest time, I decided to give it a try. Now I’m hooked.
The more I go birding, the more I wish I had introduced the activity to my students.
Here’s why I believe birding should be taught in physical education:
Birding is a lifelong activity.
On the few occasions that I bump into other birders out on the trails, I’m usually about 20-30 years younger than them. That being said, they’re out there on the same trails in the wee hours of the morning to catch a glimpse of a “lifer” (i.e. a new bird to add to their “life list,” a running list of observed birds that birders maintain.) It’s a beautiful thing. Plus, seeing that you can bird anywhere, it’s a low-cost activity accessible to everyone.
Birding boosts connectedness to nature.
Birding is an outdoor activity that encourages participants to find new areas to explore. I find it to be an incredibly mindful experience, and it has increased my connection to the natural world (and interest in local conservation efforts). As we’ve already explored here, there are health benefits of connectedness to nature that go beyond the physical activity aspect of birding.
Birding promotes a sense of belonging.
Birding is an activity that is enjoyed by millions of people around the world. Apps such as eBird (which I use to track my outings and bird lists) connect you to other birders, and there also exist thriving birding communities on various social media platforms. There’s a social aspect to the activity that I can see myself enjoying for a long time.
With that said, I’m sure not everyone is super comfortable with introducing birding to their students. That’s why I’ve put together an activity to help you get started!
The Birding Bonanza Scavenger Hunt
Since my family and I moved to our new town here in Nova Scotia, I’ve been working on ways to promote physical activity within our community. After meeting with our amazing Parks & Recreation department, I came up with the idea of creating a birding-based scavenger hunt to help families get outside and connect with nature over March Break.
The scavenger hunt involves three steps:
- Create your Birding Field Guide by looking for the hidden Bird Information Cards.
- Go birding and attempt to observe birds from your Field Guide.
- Unlock Birder Levels by earning Bird Points through your observations.
To help set this all up, I created two main resources: the Birding Field Guide and the Bird Information Cards.
To start the activity, the teacher will print out and hide the various Bird Information Cards from the downloadable set. Each card features the following information:
- The bird’s name
- A photo of the bird
- The bird’s Bird Points value (i.e. the amount of points you earn by observing the bird in the wild).
- The bird’s identification information (e.g. physical characteristics, nesting preference, food, etc).
- A fun fact about the bird.
The Bird Information Cards can be hidden around your school’s grounds, at a local park (if you can access it during your PE lessons), or throughout your community (if you want to use this activity as an extracurricular game for families to play).
As students find the hidden bird cards, they write down the bird’s name and some of its identification information onto their Birding Field Guide Sheet. Their goal is to find all twelve Bird Information Cards and add them to their guide.
Once a bird has been entered into a student’s Birding Field Guide, that student can start trying to find the real-life version of that bird in their area. Once they do, they can add that bird to their life list by marking it as a “lifer” in their field guide. A life list is a tool that birders use to keep track of the different bird species that they have observed in the wild. Adding a bird to your life list for the first time makes it a “lifer” (e.g. “check out that Yellow-Breasted Chat! That’s a lifer for me!”)
When a student adds a “lifer” to their list, they earn the amount of Bird Points associated with that bird. Students can use their accumulated Bird Points to unlock the different Birder Levels features on their field guide:
- Hobbyist (1-5 Bird Points)
- Advocate (6-10 Bird Points)
- Conservationist (11+ Bird Points)
The goal of the game is to try to unlock as many Birder Levels as possible within the timeframe that the teacher sets for the activity!
If this sounds like something that you would like to share with your students and/or your school’s community, hit the button below to download the Birding Bonanza Resources!
Additional Birding Resources
As I’ve mentioned, birding is an amazing physical activity that can help us all deepen our connectedness to nature.
It’s just a perfect way to engage in mindful physical activity outdoors, enjoy the beauty and magic that nature provides, engage your sense as you listen to bird calls and look for quick flashes of colour, and recognize all of the life that is living right outside your window.
I hope that the Birding Bonanza Scavenger Hunt can be a gateway activity into the world of birding. Just in case any of you wind up going deep into birding like I did, I wanted to share a few other resources that might be helpful:
In a lot of ways, eBird brings many of the features of Geocaching to the world of birding. It helps you track activity, log observed species, keep track of your lifers, and find out which birds have been observed in your area.
Although the platform requires that you create an account, it is free to use and is your ticket into the birding community.
When I first started birding, I basically organized all birds into two categories: eagles and everything else.
Merlin Bird ID is like a Pokédex for birds. When you see a bird that you do not recognize, the app guides you through a series of questions and then provides a curated list of possible species to help you figure out what you’ve seen. Once you’ve determined the bird, you can even log it into your eBird account right from the app!
I have terrible eyesight and often hear birds before I see them. BirdNET is like Shazam for birds: launch the app, let it record the calls you are hearing, make a selection from the recording, and then let the app magically identify your bird.
It’s not always perfect, but it has come in handy on more than one occasion!
Ok, so Wingspan really won’t help you much out in the wild but it sure will help you learn a lot about birds! The insanely popular engine-building board game is a perfect way to spend quality time with friends, learn about birds, and have some fun along the way.
I won’t get into how to play the game here (it’s a bit complex when you’re first getting started – yes, I’m fully aware of how hardcore I’m geeking out here), but here is a video breakdown on how it works:
That’s it for today! I hope you enjoyed this blog post and will consider bringing birding to your PE program. Obviously, there are so many ways to promote nature conenctedness through physical education and I would love to hear about how you are achieving that in your teaching. Feel free to share your experiences with me on Twitter!
As always, thanks for reading and happy teaching!
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