September 2019

Nature Access for Students Through EcoWellness

By Ryan Reese
Nature – including parks, green schoolyards, gardens and other outdoor spaces – has positive impacts on K–12 student attention, engagement at school, academic performance and self-esteem. If you are a school counselor who already feels compelled to connect children with nature as part of your comprehensive school counseling program, you are quite justified. However, if you are skeptical or concerned about the possible time investment to bring nature connection into your school counseling program, I encourage you to read on.

When I ask school counselors and school counseling students how they define nature, I often hear, “away from the city” or “places untouched by humankind.” I ask school counselors about their nature worldview (how they define and view nature) because I find that this definition often informs how they view the possibility of bringing the natural environment into actual school counseling practice. For instance, many school counselors can’t fathom providing K–12 students with sustainable remote wilderness-based experiences given the all-important academic curriculum and high-stakes testing. I can’t imagine offering wilderness-based experiences for students either, but nature and outdoor exposure are crucial to healthy development, which is why I developed the concept of EcoWellness.

EcoWellness is an empirically based concept created to help school counselors and other counselors make sense of how nature can make a positive difference in students’ wellness and learning. It is based on the assumption that nature is defined by the individual or community, not by the school counselor. Nature does not have to be a distant, remote wilderness – it can also be in one’s backyard, at school, outside the windowor even on one’s smartphone.

EcoWellness involves seven factors:
  1. physical access
  2. sensory access
  3. connection
  4. protection
  5. preservation
  6. spirituality
  7. community connectedness
What can you do to bring nature into your school counseling practice? I first recommend conducting a needs assessment surveying student and family access to nature. This can clarify how the school community defines nature and help identify possible ways to integrate nature into your school counseling program. Based on responses from students, family and other stakeholders, school counselors can develop specific wellness and learning initiatives. For example, views of nature have been shown to reduce the stress response and help children restore focus and concentration after cognitively taxing activities. Some researchers are even beginning to recommend a certain “dosing” of nature for experiencing optimal wellness benefits. Providing students and their families with information about the possible benefits of nature contact and providing accessible, nearby options to spend time in nature might go a long way for many families, especially for families that may lack the resources to access local nature. Some forms of nature to consider in the school counseling program include:
  • school gardens (including indoor and vertical garden spaces)
  • nearby parks
  • school courtyards
  • composting tumblers on school grounds
  • nature paths
  • water features
  • potted plants (in the classroom or office)
  • meditation garden
  • view of vegetation out a window or in nature pictures
  • natural scents
  • technological nature (nature images and sounds)
  • nature metaphor (objects from nature)
Next, facilitating opportunities for people to feel effective in or with nature can be a means to support broader well-being. As part of classroom instruction or through small groups, having students learn a nature skill can enhance student self-esteem and self-efficacy. For example, elementary students might be tasked with raising a plant from a seed across several months. Middle and high school students in a small group might learn a new nature-based activity or skill, such as photography, hiking or fishing. School counselors can potentially partner with other educators open to creative ways of achieving academic objectives.

Third, a potential goldmine partnership for school counselors is collaboration with science and environmental science teachers. Research suggests that those who develop a caring attitude and ethic toward nature may experience greater life satisfaction. And acknowledging students’ emotional concerns related to climate change could be vitally important to both validating their very real feelings while also empowering students to take action. School counselors can partner with environmental science teachers to address the social/emotional needs of students when covering units on climate change and related topics. Such large group guidance units could even be tied with the EcoWellness model, through which students learn about the seven categories of wellness related to contact with nature.

Last, a simple and powerful approach is incorporating nature into the school counseling office. School counselors can creatively provide students indirect access to nature by means of a view out the window, live plants in the office, or the presence of calming nature aromas (using a diffuser) and even nature sounds. School counselors can keep a nature basket with a variety of nature objects (e.g., rocks, sticks, sand dollars or other shells, etc.) for students to select from when describing a difficult problem they are facing.

For more information about the EcoWellness model and specific ideas for how EcoWellness can complement the ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors for Student Success, check out this recent article in Professional School Counseling.
 
Ryan Reese is an assistant professor in the master of counseling program at Oregon State University Cascades in Bend, Oregon. He developed the concept of EcoWellness, an innovative method for integrating the natural environment into counseling and therapy. Visit https://osucascades.edu/people/ryan-reese
New from ASCA: School Counselor Resource Series: “Teaching Mindsets & Behaviors Through Nature,” from ASCA’s online bookstore.