Using Nature to Boost Empathy, Imagination, and Well-Being

Winter 2018

When first-grade teacher Natalie Crowley moved to Presidio Hill School (CA), her first order of business was to add Forest Fridays to the weekly schedule. After four years of teaching in urban public schools with rigorous academic schedules and high-stakes testing, she had witnessed firsthand her first- and second-graders’ struggles to sit still, use their imaginations, and be kind to each other.

She realized that a crucial piece was missing from their school day: a connection to nature. Now, every Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., rain, shine, or fog, she, along with her co-teacher and a few parent volunteers, take the class to the park. This weekly nature time is guided by Jon Young’s Coyote Mentoring model and follows the Natural Cycle (a model for how energies move through a day, a week, a year, and a lifetime). 

A typical Forest Friday might include a quick game of Coyote Chases Rabbit, a lesson on identifying animal tracks, or a challenge to build a waterproof fort using just natural materials. It is not uncommon to see children crawling on their hands and knees as they imagine themselves to be gophers or working with a classmate to build a dam in the creek. Crowley has written a yearlong curriculum of 20 lessons that cover topics ranging from mapping to bird language to Native American hand games. 

Spending time in nature has proven health benefits for children and adults alike. Being outdoors reduces stress and anxiety, improves concentration, decreases nearsightedness, and is linked to lower rates of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Among the academic benefits are improved creativity, language development, and problem solving. Children who regularly spend time outside show more empathy, as well as increased confidence, social skills, and collaboration. 

For teachers interested in setting up their own version of Forest Fridays, the first step is to find the outdoor home base. “You don’t need a full-fledged forest—any green space, even if it’s small, will work,” Crowley says. 

The next step is getting buy-in from the school’s administration and students’ families. “You’ll want to do your homework first and show them you’ve thought through all the benefits and risks and have clear plans and procedures in place to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all,” she says. “Start small if you need to, but whatever you do, don’t hesitate. Your kids and your well-being will thank you.” For more information and resoures, go to