Noticing change in times of uncertainty.

Chris Mackie is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and Sport. His research is funded by Scottish Natural Heritage’s Magnus Magnusson studentship. In this post, he reflects on how the current situation can raise awareness of how we relate to the greenspaces in our home communities.

Across Scotland and beyond, we are all adapting to the measures put in place to minimise the impacts of COVID-19. For many parents and carers, this means juggling work and caring for children in novel ways while schools and early learning and childcare settings are closed.  Many parents are no doubt being bombarded by advice and ideas of what they can or ‘should’ be doing to support their children’s learning at home from a range of sources, and I don’t want to add to this cacophony. In times like these, which in this country we are fortunate enough to consider extraordinary, parents’ and educators’ primary concern should be the emotional and physical health and wellbeing of their children and themselves.

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©Chris Mackie

Being outdoors and in contact with the rest of the natural world is one way we can – while still following government guidelines – look after ourselves and our children. We know that spending time with nature can enhance our wellbeing in a range of ways, from promoting physical activity to boosting mood and developing our connection to the natural world. Miles Richardson of the University of Derby has recently suggested some ways to get a nature fix, even if you can’t leave the house. As a parent, and a researcher working with young children to better understand how they come to know the natural world, I’ve been thinking a lot over the last couple of weeks about how restrictions on people’s movements might be affecting children’s lives. In this post, I want to consider how staying-at-home is making some things – both positive and negative – more noticeable.

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©Chris Mackie

Being told to stop and stay at home prompts us to take notice of our home-places. I want to think about two distinct forms of this, and how being mindful of each might shape how we do things on the other side of the lockdown measures. At the outset, it’s important to acknowledge that these are extraordinary times, full of individual and collective suffering and we’re all trying to do our best with what we’ve got. However, when it comes to things like quality housing, greenspace, mobility and healthy, local, sustainable food, access is not always equitable, and that’s looking at it only from the human side of things.

The first form of noticing we might engage in relates to how our lives change when we have to re-localise them, even temporarily. There are different aspects of this that I could concentrate on, such as food sovereignty or low-carbon transport, but I want to focus on how important access to natural, outdoor spaces must feel suddenly, particularly to families with children. On a ‘normal’ day at school, a primary-aged child might expect to spend nearly an hour and a half playing outdoors as an integral part of their school day, aside from any formal outdoor learning. The UK Chief Medical Officer’s physical activity guidelines recommend that 3 and 4 year-olds “should spend at least 180 minutes (3 hours) per day in a variety of physical activities… including active and outdoor play.” As I said at the start, the circumstances that we’re living through are not normal, but noticing how much our children need safe outdoor places to play might start to shift how we value greenspace in our local communities and our schools. It also makes visible existing inequalities, which might be amplified or reduced at present.

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©George Logan/SNH

For those with gardens or who live in rural areas, some children may be spending more time outdoors and active than normal, but in urban areas,  small pockets of greenspace will be subject to very high levels of use as people make the most of what’s available to them in short bursts. This also flags how dependent on private transport some forms of outdoor recreation are. We have already seen tensions emerging in some parts of the country as authorities seek to balance the public health benefits of exercise in local parks with the need to enforce physical distancing. On the other hand, reduced road traffic at present probably means that parents and carers feel differently about children cycling, running and scooting close to home.

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Does (green) infrastructure support all of the members of your community equitably?  By actively noticing what’s different, what’s working well, what’s not, and trying to understand why, we can start conversations within our families and communities about what is important to us that might be extended beyond ‘lockdown’.

The second form of noticing that seems to be important at the moment is noticing the natural world around us, however we can. Several times over the last few weeks, I’ve been very grateful that we’re going through this during spring rather than autumn or midwinter – Earth is waking up, other beings are busy, changes and rhythms beyond the human continue. Noticing this might take different forms. You might be taking part in the RSPB’s #BreakfastBirdwatch, planting seeds in a garden or pots, or following the same path daily and seeing buds open or early flowers bloom. Research shows that noticing ‘good things’ in nature every day can increase nature connection, and many forms of mindfulness practice are grounded in processes which bring us into awareness of other beings and systems. As the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Love Letter to the Earth, “When we sit with this kind of awareness, we can embrace the whole world, from past to future. When we sit like that, our happiness is boundless.”

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©Mathew Hannett

When we engage in these processes, of looking, listening, acknowledging and caring for the non-human around us and when we look to natural rhythms for peace and certainty, we show our children that this is something worth doing for ourselves and other beings. In times like these, children are learning more than ever from our responses to what’s going on in the world – remembering this is just as important as making sure you can log into Google Classrooms. Whether paying attention to nature around you is new or a familiar ritual, maybe you’ll start to see things differently from your window, in your garden or in your local greenspaces. Ask yourself whether some humans or other living beings are privileged over others. What would it look like if multiple species and people could flourish in the same space? In taking the time to notice, especially if accompanied by clear-eyed children, maybe we’ll come up with some good answers.

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©Lorne Gill/SNH

There are lots of ideas for ways to connect with nature on the Outdoor Learning Directory website. Many of the activities suggested by organisations like the RSPB and Learning through Landscapes can be adapted to suit a range of environments at home or as part of your daily local exercise, and hundreds of outdoor learning ideas have been compiled at Creative Star Learning. In my next post, I’ll share some of my experiences spending time with my own son, concentrating on language as a way to make sense of the world and how this might affect how children relate to the natural world. In the meantime, stay safe and take time where you can to pay attention. Old and young humans alike might find some peace in the emerging patterns of Spring, however we can acknowledge them.


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