How Experiencing Nature Helps Improve Social and Emotional Development

At Inside SEL, our mission is to act megaphone, amplifying the great work being done by leaders in education and social-emotional learning across the country.

Throughout the past year, we have been incredibly fortunate to help build and interact with an amazing community of educators, administrators, researchers, parents, students, and other proponents of whole child education. Many of our readers will write to us with their own stories and opinions about the future of education, and we view it as part of our goal to help share high-impact stories with as wide of an audience as possible.

The following piece was authored by Charlie Fletcher, a freelance writer living in the pacific northwest who has a variety of interests including sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more.


One of the core tenets of social-emotional learning (SEL) is that it should provide benefits to the whole child. It seems strange, then, that so often schools and even homeschoolers limit their learning and development primarily to the indoor confines of the classroom. To boost their understanding of their place in the world, some of their education should occur among nature.    

In some ways, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has made this a more practical option. Many lessons are still being undertaken remotely, providing opportunities for students to explore and experiment in their local ecosystem. Even as we approach the new normal, there are opportunities to reshape the curriculum to incorporate nature and the environment into learning. Not to mention that such activities can be instrumental in promoting holistic health in children.   

We’re going to take a closer look at some areas in which nature-based classes can positively impact social and emotional development. What are some of the activities that can be most beneficial?

Real-World Connections

Online learning has become more prevalent in students’ lives, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s perfectly understandable that parents and teachers alike might be concerned that such a focus on technology might be negatively impacting children’s development. There are certainly positives to tech-based learning from a problem-solving skills perspective and their visual-spatial development. However, it’s also the case that there can be potential problems in social development and attention span when tech plays too central a role. 

As such, spending time in nature can help students manage their mental health and connect meaningfully with the real world that surrounds them. Arranging lessons that take place in parks, woodland, even a vegetable garden can help children engage with the sense of exploration and provide them with practical opportunities to understand their role within and impact upon the natural world. 

Part of helping children to develop more holistically is making it clear to them that they have a holistic impact on the world that surrounds them. Help them to understand how to successfully interact with nature, and how the environment, in turn, nourishes the human population. Don’t just take this from a literal food growth sense; show them how nature can boost their emotional state. This can provide them with robust practical tools to handle their psychological and social challenges as they grow. 

Responsibilities and Empathy

One of the most important aspects of social and emotional development is helping children to understand the impact of their actions on themselves, other people, and the world around them. Taking lessons in outdoor environments can be effective in helping to underpin discussions you may have had in the classroom about their responsibilities and building an empathetic skill set.  

Service activities are especially useful in this regard. Park clean-ups and ecological projects give students opportunities to get a first-hand, practical experience of why it is imperative to adopt environmentally friendly practices such as recycling and reducing plastic waste. Such services also have a place in improving social and emotional intelligence in students — research has shown that there are links between engaging in pro-environmental activities and positive behavior for people at all points of the socioeconomic spectrum. Not to mention that the sense of wellbeing that students get from being in nature reinforces the positivity of their actions and encourages repetition in the future.    

Among the most important social and emotional development benefits to be gained from undertaking nature-based activities is a deeper understanding of both individual and group impact. Students can see that there is a direct connection between how people behave and the effect it has on their natural surroundings. Moreover, it demonstrates that their personal actions can be effective in making things better. This can empower students to engage in positive activities and take personal responsibility for their environment. These experiences can also be used as references when discussing lessons related to empathy and considering the consequences of actions on others.  

Collaboration and Communication

How students maintain and build relationships with other people is an important building block of social and emotional development. It helps them to gain perspectives on how to function in society, and it also allows them to understand and critically assess different points of view. Their ability to collaborate effectively positively contributes to their growth, but unfortunately, the prevalence of online learning during COVID-19 has diminished that somewhat. As such, getting outside safely with other students can give them opportunities to build their collaborative and communicative skill sets.   

Local farms can be a useful resource here. Various activities need to be undertaken in agricultural spaces, and small groups of children can benefit from taking care of them together. Encouraging them to mutually agree to the division of certain duties and plan their approach can give them both experience of taking personal responsibility and boost their self-esteem as a result of their positive actions. This can be particularly important if you live in an area that has community-supported agriculture projects, as the students will be working together, gaining an appreciation of each others’ talents as part of a team, and seeing the positive impact they have on the wider community.    

However, if you homeschool your children and such projects aren’t accessible, it can still be effective to create a small outdoor office-style space at home. If you have a patio or garden, make the space comfortable and practical, allocating an area so you can invite small numbers of other homeschoolers to do their educational work together in the sunshine. Small plants can enhance the area, but it can be useful instead to get students involved in potting these or even creating a small vegetable garden. This can be treated as a long-term project in which each participant can communicate with each other about progress, and how they can work together to improve the outcomes. 

The Next Frontier for SEL

While there are hopes that policymakers will prioritize social and emotional development in traditional schooling, there is a lot to be gained by taking lessons in outdoor spaces. Students get to build connections to the world around them and gain insights into their responsibilities to themselves, other humans, and the world around them. Engaging meaningfully with nature can also be a tool that helps them to develop into communicative and collaborative contributors to society.  


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