Wednesday Wisdom

April 10, 2024

Catching Our Breath

By Dr Cassie Rhodes

Catching Our Breath


School holidays… they can be tricky beasts. On the one hand, it’s lovely for the kids to have a break, catch up with friends, see relatives, enjoy some downtime, and have greater opportunity to spend family time together. On the other, when children are at home (perhaps hoping for some form of entertainment from you), but ‘normal life’ also carries on, it can, at times, feel like a real challenge to keep all of the required plates spinning.

As I sat down to write this week’s Wednesday Wisdom, I found myself reflecting on a hectic day, when my focus had to move quickly from one thing to the next. As well as a busy day at work and fitting in my own early-morning training session, I’d ferried the kids to and from various sports, cooked enough meals to sustain them (i.e. more than three), tried to solve a less than glamorous plumbing issue, sorted out various dull administrative tasks, and unsuccessfully attempted to speak to a well known DIY store, which had failed to deliver a much needed order… for the fourth consecutive day. Glitzy, it was not. Arriving at the final swimming session of the day, I felt pretty worn out.

However, spring has officially sprung and the days are noticeably lengthening, so I took advantage of the growing warmth and lingering light by going for a walk. As I set off, my mind was whirring with all the things that I still ‘should’ be doing. But as I headed into the fields and woods under a setting sun, and started to take in the nodding bluebells and birdsong around me, my brain definitely started to clear. In peace and tranquillity, I plodded along, simply putting one foot in front of the other. It was the first time that day when I felt like I could catch my breath.

I know it’s hardly revelatory to note that spending a little bit of time in nature, doing something quiet and calming, made me feel more relaxed. In fact, it seems that I’m somewhat behind the times. Social media influencers have been proclaiming the benefits of ‘silent walks’ (as opposed to ones where we are plugged into music or a podcast) for months now, with prominent TikTokers citing numerous research studies which link spending time in nature, away from our screens, to a positive impact on our wellbeing. They aren’t wrong!


If we look at the evidence, there is a vast body of existing research on both children and adults which finds that being outdoors, particularly in natural environments, is important for us in numerous ways. But neither we, nor our children, need to be on a silent walk to reap the benefits.

In a Tooled Up interview recorded with a brilliant researcher (and one of our former ‘researchers of the month’), Gemma Goldenberg explained how simply being outside in natural light is known to improve mood and reduce feelings of sadness, anger, and physiological stress. Natural light, she notes, is even sometimes used in treatments for depression. Just being in nature can have a positive impact. Numerous studies, mainly from Japan, have compared individuals’ physiology when sitting in a quiet forest environment with sitting in an urban environment, finding that their blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels are all lower in the forest. It turns out that even creativity may be enhanced by being outdoors. Gemma explained that natural environments, which allow us to pay attention to our surroundings less effortfully, enable our brains to enter states of wakeful rest and replenishment, which can increase our capacity for creative thinking. Fascinating.

For children, being connected to, or even just having access to nature has been found to reduce stress, is associated with fewer emotional and behavioural problems, provides an opportunity for social development and increases their capacity to focus on tasks. Spending time in nature is also considered essential to countering some of the worries that children might have about climate change; something that psychiatrists report as a large and growing source of distress for young people seeking clinical help. Children who actively engage with nature have also been found to have fewer general mental health difficulties and greater emotional wellbeing.

Part of the Nature Access for Urban Children project, Gemma’s own research focuses on the impact of natural outdoor environments on children’s learning and behaviour. To gather data, she visited several different reception classes in Newham, London, working with 75 children during indoor and outdoor learning sessions. All sessions were structured in exactly the same way, using the same curriculum, activities, resources, space, seating arrangements, rules about movement, teaching staff and time of day. Using various bits of nifty tech, including heart rate monitors, actigraphs, decibel meters, microphones and head-mounted cameras, Gemma compared children’s behaviours and physiological markers outdoors and in.

Her findings are striking. Outdoor sessions were quieter and children’s heart rates were slower outdoors, indicating lower levels of physiological stress. When she focused on children who were most antisocial in their indoor classrooms, she noticed that they were significantly less antisocial (verbally and physically) when learning outdoors. Equally, children who were the least prosocial indoors, were much more prosocial outside. Recent research by Dr Samantha Friedman (another former Tooled Up interviewee) has also found that autistic children can benefit from learning outdoors, and that teachers can facilitate supportive and welcoming nature-based learning for autistic students by closely considering safety, establishing structure and routine, building trust and being responsive.

These are novel findings with significant implications for using outdoor settings as an educational tool in tackling challenging behaviour, building social skills and forming positive relationships, but they provide food for thought in everyday life as much as for formal learning.


Whether we live somewhere urban or rural, there are numerous ways that we can bring nature into our family life and excite our children (and ourselves) about the wonders all around us.

We can nudge young children to interact with nature by providing them with their own basic gardening tools, encouraging them to dig in the garden or plant seeds in a pot on the windowsill, and nurture their plants as they grow (you can even make your own pots out of newspaper). If you have outdoor space, why not encourage wildlife with bird feeders, bee and butterfly-friendly flowers and bug hotels? Volunteering at community gardens or participating in a local litter clean-up are both fantastic ways for children to learn about nature, whilst also instilling the altruistic joys of giving something back to their local environment. When you are out and about, why not make use of the many apps available that can encourage our appreciation of the world around us? This clever tech can help us to identify trees, plants, birds and even decipher the constellations in the night sky!

When children actively engage with their natural surroundings, and investigate the things they see around them, they can start to make age-appropriate connections between their lived experiences, scientific concepts and philosophical ideas. What is unnatural? What does it mean to love a place? Is nature a resource? Can we ‘save’ the planet? What do we owe the future? If you are an educator who’d like to consider more about how using a philosophical approach to learning in a natural setting can give children the space to consider and voice their thoughts and support dialogue on our connection with nature and other important global issues, check out philosophy charity Sapere’s Thinking with Nature course, which is facilitated by specialists in philosophy and outdoor education. If the location isn’t convenient, sign up to hear about future events or request a course nearer to home.

Back to catching our breath. Taking time to watch and listen to the changes in nature with our children is a direct investment in both their and our resilience and wellbeing. Connecting with one another, grounding ourselves in nature and really noticing the beauty that surrounds us, is one antidote to the stresses and strains of modern day life. Feeling part of something bigger can definitely help us to find a sense of perspective when we are faced with challenges. But it’s not the only way. Effective investment in self-care will differ for us all.

At Tooled Up, we always recommend that children create a coping menu of go-to people, activities and passions which make them feel better when they are overwhelmed, down in the dumps or plain irritated. It’s an exercise that is just as valuable for us adults, and doing this activity together as a family might be optimal. Modelling how we navigate everyday worries and stresses and pointedly making time for ourselves can help to teach our children that feeling wrung out isn’t something we should just tolerate.

Parental stress and anxiety can negatively affect not just us, but our children too, in multiple ways. By focusing on ourselves, taking our own feelings and experiences seriously, and charging ourselves up with breaks when we need them, we are actually future-proofing the whole family. Nature is one tool that can help. As meteorologist David Bowker wrote, “The lengthening of the days and all the changes that go on around us at this time of the year are some of the things that make our countryside and our weather so distinctive. We are often so busy that they pass us by, and before we know it, full summer is upon us. Taking time to watch and listen to the changes in nature, and then to talk about them afterwards, can make us richer for the experience”.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

If your children are still on school holidays and you’d like to help them make the most of the break, our School Holiday Planner is a great way to kick off some strategic thinking about how to spend their time. Plus, if you feel stuck for holiday ideas with older children and teens, we’ve just published a whole list (both outdoors and in) designed to cater to all tastes.

To encourage children to appreciate the natural world, check out our list of 75 Things To Do Outside or consider trying some nature apps. If you are lucky enough to get to the coast, our Beach Science activities for primary-aged and teenage children will get them paddling in rock pools and learning at the same time. This is also a great time for a safety refresher from our water safety resource. If we get any more wild weather, why not also check out our meteorology resources on clouds and storms? We’ve also compiled a great list of both fiction and non-fiction books for Earth Day, all of which celebrate the natural world and help us and our children consider what we can do to appreciate and take care of it.

If you’d like to learn more about the research around the benefits of engaging with nature for learning and wellbeing, we’ve got some fascinating material in the Tooled Up platform. Tune into our interview with Gemma Goldenberg on the benefits of learning outdoors, and find out about the particular benefits that learning outdoors can have for autistic children in our webinar with Dr Samantha Friedman.

Finally, if the holidays have you tearing your hair out trying to keep those plates spinning, you might find Dr Kathy Weston’s tips on managing stress a source of practical, realistic advice. You can also use our list of potential worry points to help identify your stress triggers, or download our Coping Menu to help identify go-to activities and people that make you (and your children) feel good.