Natural Education: Using Nature to Slow Down, Learn, and Reflect

Natural Education: Using Nature to Slow Down, Learn, and Reflect

Throughout human history, hardly any of us have lived in cities. The 10,000 years or so that we’ve been farming accounts for only about a tenth of our species’ history and cities have only existed for about half of that time. It’s only been in the past hundred years or so that more people have lived in cities or suburbs than in rural areas. We didn’t really evolve to drive cars, to live in apartments, or to walk on concrete sidewalks.

There are certainly huge advantages to city life such as convenience, career opportunities, fun things to do, lots of social connection, and so on, but staying connected to nature in some way is essential to our wellbeing. Many studies have linked spending time in nature to less stress, anxiety, and depression. Studies have also found nature is good for your immune system, since plants naturally produce compounds that fight fungi and bacteria.

There’s also a lot to learn about life from spending time in nature. Thoreau famously wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau built himself a little hut from scrap wood to learn what he could from nature, but you don’t have to go that far. What’s essential is that you carve out a bit of time to just be in nature and once you get there, pay attention.

There are many great ways to engage with nature. You can go hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, or climbing. However, being engaged in these activities typically takes a lot of your attention. If you want to learn from nature, you also have to be willing to do nothing. Pick a spot, sit down and be quiet. Most people don’t realize how much wildlife vanishes when humans approach. It may take 10 or 15 minutes of looking very inconspicuous before normal life resumes in the woods.

When you start to watch life in the woods, your ideas about life can change very quickly. Everyday problems seem less stressful. Nature never rushes. There’s a rhythm. There are no schedules. There is no future or past. Everything you see is only alive in the moment. Everything you see is connected. Nothing is more or less important than anything else. The deer, the owls, the bacteria in the soil, the trees and everything else play their own parts. If you want to see this even more clearly, bring along a notebook or a sketch pad. Write down what you see. Do this every day, even for only 30 minutes or an hour, even if it’s just in the park.

After spending time in nature, you’ll find the volume is turned down in everything else in your life. Some of that stillness stays with you. You get less agitated when things go wrong. You also see nature come through the cracks of city life, whether it’s flowers growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk or foxes sniffing around the trash in the suburbs. It reminds you that your schedules, your goals, your expectations, however useful they may be, are all artificial.

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