Many of us tend to move through the school day on autopilot, rarely going outside, and some days we don’t go outside at all. But I’ve found that whenever I make time to get outside while at school, I feel better instantly. For whatever reason, going outside while working almost feels a little scandalous, like I’m playing hooky. Maybe that’s part of the delight. However, the primary reason I feel better when I’m outside is best explained in the studies that link time spent outdoors with happiness and overall well-being.
A 2017 study in Environmental Health Perspectives, for example, found that “nature contact offers considerable promise in addressing a range of health challenges, including many, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety, that are public health priorities.”
Yet many of us spend most of our days under artificial lights in classrooms and offices, our faces illuminated by screens. We don’t go outside unless we need to supervise an outdoor activity or move from one building to another. So many Americans are overworked, stressed, and anxious. And educators can struggle with these issues more than most, especially during the pandemic.
If something as simple as getting outside can help, it’s worth considering—especially with the knowledge that it’s healthier to be outside anyway.
How to Make It Happen
1. Schedule a solo walk, or plan to go with a colleague. Try to get out once a day, even if only for a few minutes. The exercise is nice, but the real benefit is having your spirits lifted by the world outside your school building. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, walking should be “the enterprise and adventure of the day.” Think of how delightfully confused colleagues and students will be when you tell them you just returned from your “daily enterprise.”
2. Take phone calls outside. Do this whenever possible, for both personal and work-related calls. For the win-win, walk while you talk.
3. Move small meetings to outdoor seating areas, such as picnic tables. This relaxes the tone of the meeting and brightens the mood. Ideally, you’ll meet in a green space of some kind. In Your Brain on Nature, physician Eva M. Selhub and biophilosopher Alan C. Logan write, “Exposure to nature-based environments is associated with lower blood pressure and reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol (and other objective markers of stress).”
4. Eat outside. If you have days without lunch duties or meetings, take the meal outside. Encourage others to join you.
5. Try walking meetings. They work surprisingly well both one-on-one and in small groups. A 2014 Stanford University study found that a walking meeting “opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.” The lack of eye contact might also allow you and your colleagues to let your guard down a bit and be more honest. Someone can record notes on their phone, if needed.
6. Bring your work outside. This is helpful if you need to be less accessible for a while and also allows you to reap the stress-reducing, creativity-boosting benefits outlined above. And if you need to do writing or planning work, give your eyes—and brain, for that matter—a break and leave your laptop inside. Bring a notebook. While there’s conflicting research about the creative benefits of writing by hand versus typing, going analog can slow you down just enough to allow new ideas to form that might not have otherwise.
7. Just take a short break. Bring a book, or clear your mind with some meditation. If you’re aghast at the idea of taking this kind of break, keep in mind the paradoxical truth that taking breaks helps us to focus on our work.
None of these ideas are radical, yet actually doing any of them can feel radical when we’re accustomed to spending entire school days inside. The more time we spend inside, the more we tend to believe that’s where all the real work happens.
There are still plenty of occasions when, after a full day at school, I realize while walking to the parking lot that it’s the first time I’ve been outside since I arrived that morning. The weather doesn’t have to be perfect. As someone writing from New England, where the weather is... fickle, I can assure you that half of the options above are workable even in so-called inclement weather. You can keep seasonally appropriate clothes and footwear at school. Sometimes a brisk walk on a brisk day is exactly what you need.
It makes no difference whether your school is in a rural, suburban, or urban area. Many urban schools have access to green spaces, and if not, sometimes just exposure to the air and sky is enough. The point is simply to get outside. No Central Park required.
We take for granted the importance of getting our students outside—for learning, play, and exercise—because it benefits their mental and physical health. However, since our work is centered around serving others, we often forget about our own needs—in this case, that we need to get outside for the same reasons as our students. So, in the hustle of your school days, try stepping outside. Take advantage of this simple, accessible way to restore your energy, lift your spirits, and return to yourself.