Longwood is not only a spectacular setting to immerse oneself in a beautiful outdoor environment, but it’s also one perfectly situated to engage young students with nature—a concept we explored firsthand during a recent collaboration with St. Christopher’s Foundation for Children and their Nature Access Pilot Program. Through this program, SCFC recently brought a group of 30+ fourth- and fifth-grade students from The Community Partnership School in North Philadelphia to our Gardens to not only engage in learning at Longwood—complete with pre- and post-visit activities—but to also aid in their efforts to study the positive effects that spending time in nature has on mental health and well-being.
SCFC believes that “every child deserves access to the social-emotional and mental health benefits of spending time in nature.” Through their Nature Access Program, the foundation strives to create opportunities for children residing in nature-deficient areas to spend meaningful time in green spaces in an effort to build positive mental well-being. SCFC recognizes that children living in areas with little to no access to nature often face barriers to spending time in green spaces, including lack of transportation, safety concerns, competing household demands, and time. The Nature Access Program helps to remove some of these barriers, allowing students across Philadelphia to experience the benefits of nature.
When we learned that SCFC wanted to bring students to our Gardens for the pilot of their Nature Access Program, we were excited for many reasons. The vision for this program aligns with Longwood’s mission to bring joy and inspiration to everyone through the beauty of nature as well as our vision to present extraordinary experiences to bring pleasure, foster well-being, and spark imagination. As a clear match for this collaboration, our teams soon began planning how to make the Longwood visits not only a profound experience for this specific group of fourth and fifth graders, but how to make it an experience that can be replicated in the future with more students in different green spaces.
Through this pilot program, the experience consisted of two visits to the Gardens and a variety of pre- and post-visit activities. Each of these different activities and visits serve a specific purpose in creating a holistic experience that takes each student’s personal physical, mental, and emotional state into account and will help them to build a positive relationship with nature that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.
One week prior to the students’ first visit to the Gardens, the 30+ fourth- and fifth-grade students from the Community Partnership School prepared for their visit to the Gardens. The students watched a video introducing them to Longwood and talked about what to expect during their visits. Additionally, their school counselors met with the students to review what mindfulness is and how practicing it in nature is especially helpful. With that, the students were ready for their first visit!
The students’ first visit to the Gardens in April served as an orientation to the Gardens. Each student documented their visit in a journal, taking note of all the sights, sounds, and scents. During their visit, Longwood photographers captured photos and videos of all the locations that students visited so that they can “visit the Gardens” from their classroom and recreate the feelings of joy, excitement, or relaxation that they experienced during their first visit.
As our Longwood educators guided the students through the Gardens, they provided inspiring stories of founder Pierre S. du Pont. Once such story told was that of a 10-year-old Pierre seeing his first fountain display in the city of Philadelphia and wanting to have fountains of his own for others to enjoy.
In late May, the students arrived at our Gardens once again for their second visit. This time, our educators guided the students through our Benefits of Nature Program where they used their senses to explore the Gardens. Throughout the lesson, the students learned how to apply methods of mindfulness to refocus through breathing exercises, explore how the scents of plants can make us feel relaxed or energetic, focus on nature as a tool for inspiration, and use nature journals to guide self-reflection.
When the students entered the Gardens, they were greeted by our impressive American elm tree. This tree serves as a perfect opportunity to discuss how to deal with stress. The students observed how stress in the environment has affected the historic American elm as they can visibly see the scars remaining on the trunk of the massive tree. Our Longwood educators quickly transitioned the conversation into how humans experience stress, recognizing signs of stress, and learning techniques to cope with stress. This theme of relating our experiences to nature and using nature as helpful tool for processing our emotions was expertly carried out by our educators throughout the entire lesson.
Following each visit, students were surveyed by staff from School Frontiers, a data-driven organization from Philadelphia collaborating on the project. Teachers were also given a post-program questionnaire to complete. All data collected will be used to assess, analyze, and support the benefits nature has on children.
SCFC is working alongside children and nature expert, Dr. Cathy Jordan, Associate Director for Leadership & Education at the Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota, to help inform the pilot program’s research component. Future plans for the Nature Access Program include expanding the pilot to more schools incorporating the learnings from this year’s pilot program.
We are proud to have played a part in helping SCFC bring their Nature Access Pilot Program to life, and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to create a lasting impact on a group of young students, inspiring them to form a love for nature, and helping set them up with the skills to use nature as a tool for mental health and well-being. President of SCFC Jan Shaeffer echoes this sentiment and recognizes the importance of this type of work, as she believes “providing children with regular access to nature can create lifelong connections to its powerful healing forces.”
In addition to such initiatives as our collaboration with SCFC, we are committed to our mission of bringing joy and inspiration to everyone through the beauty of nature, conservation, and learning. In keeping with that mission, we are thrilled that, beginning in fall 2023, our onsite guided and self-guided programs will be free for school groups in grades Pre-K through 12. Led by Longwood educators, our onsite guided school group programs offer inquiry-based learning in our Gardens, while our self-guided school group visits allow educators to set the pace while engaging students in meaningful exploration within our living classroom. We are excited to continue to expand learning opportunities with these free curriculum-based programs … and we are honored to play a part in this continued learning and growth.