nature and wellbeing; 5 mindfulness-based activities for teens to reconnect with nature this winter season

7:44 am 16 January 2021 Jose Fernandez 0 Comments

Shortened cold, gray and damp days are hardly elements that motivate us to get outside, right?  When I talk with teens in my office about spending time in nature, particularly in the winter months, the conversation quickly shifts to avoiding the cold and waiting until Spring when things warm up and everything starts to brighten and bloom again.  

I get it. We’re more inclined to associate winter as a time for solitude and it's important to make time for rest, but the reality is when we allow the conditions of each season to control our relationship with the natural world, our preferences may result in waiting out the “uncomfortable” for the more “comfortable”  and before we know it, we can end up spending days, even months stuck inside. 

When we consider the growing body of research that has advanced our understanding of how time in nature improves our mental health and well-being, it seems worthy to reconsider the conditioned response that has many of us avoiding the winter climate.    

Nature provides the ideal setting to observe our reactions to present moment experiences.  Pause for a moment now, and imagine yourself preparing to spend the next 20-minutes outside no matter the conditions.  What happens within your own internal landscape?  Maybe you notice resistance, slight tension in your body, feelings of dread, maybe your mind creates negative thoughts about how this experience might unfold or excuses for why this is a bad idea?  Or maybe, you welcome the proposal noticing a small burst of energy in your body and your mind is already preparing to bundle up for an adventure?

Regardless of your current relationship status with the natural world,  taking into account that nature is also the ideal setting for quieting the mind, calming the body, and resetting the nervous system, one might argue that it’s a relationship worth making space for.  And beyond our own benefit, research suggests that how we think about nature; our affective relationship with and the extent to which we see ourselves as part of nature has an impact on nature’s wellbeing too.

Whether it’s simply standing outside your front door to stretch and take a few full breaths of fresh air,  gazing out the window to experience snowflakes gently falling to the ground, or mindfully taking a walk through your neighborhood,  setting the intention to venture outside several times a week (yes, even in the Winter) is important for your mental wellness and here are some ideas to get you started this season!

Feeling Cold  
A negative association with feeling cold is often one of the biggest deterrents to spending time in nature during the winter months.  In this exercise, we set the intention to spend just a few minutes outside exploring the sensation of cold, with a curious attitude versus judgment.

You might dress in a winter coat but leave the hat and mittens for your mindful winter walk; the aim is not to experience extreme discomfort, but to simply notice the sensations of cold.  Be safe and consider the temperature before heading out. 

  1. Step outside and make sure you’re on clear ground.  Stand tall and steady, in an alert and relaxed position.  You might close your eyes if this feels comfortable to you.  Start by taking a few full mindful breaths.   
  2. Spend 1-2 minutes observing sensations, feelings, and thoughts that may arise as you experience the cold.  Notice the parts of your body where the cold air touches your skin.  What are the different sensations of the cold; can you explore these sensations without any judgment?  Do the sensations vary in intensity? Notice the contrast of cold versus the areas where you feel warmth.  Let yourself just be with this experience without demand for it to change. 
  3. When you’re ready, step back inside and take a moment to reflect on the experience and what you observed.  
The next time you bundle up to head outside, notice your anticipation or reaction to going out into the cold.  How could it impact your experience?   

Step Outside to Energize  
Take a short break from online school or homework and notice what happens when you connect with nature by stepping outside into the cool brisk air for a mind-body break.  

  1. Dress comfortably for the conditions and find a space outside where you can stand comfortably for 1-2 minutes.  
  2. Take 5-10 full breaths, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.  You might consider syncing movement to your breath; as you inhale slowly lift and raise your arms to overhead.  Pause when your arms are stretched towards the sky.  Exhale slowly while extending your arms back downward towards the ground until they reach your sides.  Repeat with each breath cycle.  
  3. Let your breath come back to its natural state and take a moment to orient to here and now.  Notice what’s directly in front of you.  Look to see what’s above and below you. Turn to see what is behind you. 
  4. Check in with how you feel in your body and mind before heading back indoors. 

Moon Gazing 
With less daylight in the winter months, the darkness provides us with more opportunities to witness the moon rise and set.  Look up with wonder and awe concentrating on the here and now; moon and stargazing is a fun mindfulness experience to share with friends or family!

Dress for the weather, make sure you’re comfortable.  You can sit or stand, or consider using a warm blanket and lying down.  Find a comfortable place outside where you have a clear view of the moon and/or stars. 

In this exercise allow your body to settle and be still.  Bring awareness to the simplicity and greatness of being under the stars in the brisk winter air.  Look up at the sky taking in the wholeness of what you see.  Simply spend time gazing at the moon and stars.  If you get distracted by thoughts or things around you, simply guide your attention back to what you’re seeing above you.  Before ending this mindfulness activity, check in with how you feel and then head inside for a warm cup of hot chocolate!

Mindful Winter Walk 
Consider setting an intention to walk each week engaging your senses in the present moment.  A simple walk in your yard, at a nearby park, or grab a friend and check out one of the many county parks near you!

Slow your pace for a portion of your walk bringing your full attention to the sensation of your feet connecting to the earth beneath you.  

Pause for a minute or two to engage your senses:  

  • Take in the sights.  Look ahead and notice the details of what’s directly in front of you, above and then below you.  Turn to see the landscape behind you.  
  • Next, pay attention to sounds.  Try not to label, name or judge what you hear. Simply open your awareness to the range of sounds both far and near.  
  • Shift your awareness to the feeling of air against your skin and if you’re lucky, the warmth of the sun.
  • Take a few full breaths, feeling the crisp air as it enters your nostrils.  Do you notice any smells? 
  • Feel the entirety of your body in this moment starting with your feet connected to the ground beneath you and slowly making your way up until you reach the crown of your head reaching towards the sky.   
  • When you’re ready, continue with your walk. 

Nature Meditation by a Window 
We often go through the motions of daily living without really paying attention to the wonder that’s right outside the window.  This simple exercise is an invitation to pause and connect with the natural world from the comfort of your own home.  Dropping into the present moment can activate the body’s natural relaxation response, reducing stress levels.  The key to accessing the benefits of this break is to bring a level of attention and mindfulness to the activity. 

  • Find a comfortable seat at a window that provides a view of the outdoors.  
  • Looking outside, bring a sense of wonder to the experience, as if seeing the landscape outside the window for the first time. 
  • Take in all there is to see. Notice shapes, colors, contrasts, patterns and textures. 
  • If the mind creates a narrative about what you see, or starts to label and categorize, bring your attention back to simply noticing what you see. 
  • Take a few mindful breaths to end this practice and check in with how you feel.

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