Article contributed by Kathleen Lockyer, occupational therapist and founder of RxOutside, as part of Audubon California's "Bridge to Nature" series.
I get out of my car and see Mikey's mom walking toward the office to have our meeting. I can tell by her walk that she is tired. Her clothes hang wrinkled. Her shoes are worn. Today a team of professionals will discuss Mikey's progress and his behavior at school.
Mikey is an eight-year-old child, much bigger in stature than his peers. He has an individualized plan at school for communication challenges and emotional dysregulation, a term used to describe the inability to tame his emotions. He spends much of his day in a special education classroom with other children who have similar characteristics. Every time I enter his classroom, his young teacher confides, "I'm afraid of him. I don't want to get hurt." She has a behavioral chart, a special set of stickers, small pieces of candy, rubber hand fidgets, and an iPod in a protective rubber box. All these items are to help Mikey be "compliant" with menial tasks all day long.
"Do you think these tasks are meaningful for him?" I ask. She looks like she is going to cry. "No. But what else can I do?"
I see Mikey once a week. I've been taking him to the school garden, a small patch of green with a few raised planter beds, and an old forgotten Mulberry tree— surrounded by a chain-link fence and a locked gate to keep the kids away from possible hazards. On the way to the garden with Mikey, I sing, "And the red red Robin, goes bop bop boppin along!" and then I say, "Do you think we will hear the beautiful song of the robin today?"
We enter the garden, and he ping pongs around, turning over stones and wood boards. He tugs at a low branch of the Mulberry tree, and I whisper, "Oh, be careful with my limbs. I like to keep my leaves and give you shade on hot days." He looks at me and smiles, "You said that!" "Maybe," I tease. He goes over to a kale spring and places two fingers on a leaf as if to pull it. He turns and looks at me with a smile. I say, "Oh, Mikey. Please hold me softer than that. I want to keep growing so I can give you food." He giggles, and we move around the whole garden playing this charade. Towards the end of our mere twenty minutes together, a Robin lands on a branch of the Mulberry Tree and begins to sing a "Chula leep Chula loo!" and I tap Mikey on the shoulder and point to the Robin. "What does he say?" Mikey asks. In a sing-songy Robin voice, I say, "Oh Mikey, it was lovely to see you today. I'm so glad I could sing you my song and help your body calm down!" He replies, "Yes! You DID! Thank you, Red Red Robin!"
A week later and I am called to Mikey's classroom. When I arrive, I notice the other students are out on the playground. It's not recess time. The teacher is standing outside, and the door is cracked open. I open the door and see that Mikey has thrown books, a chair, and ripped up a pile of paper. "Hey, Mikey," I say quietly. He turns and walks straight for me, then past me, and shouts, "Are we going to see the red red Robin!"
A new study reports that only ten minutes in a natural setting can reset our neurological system to calm our anxious minds and bodies. I've witnessed this shift hundreds of times with children. More research has emerged about the growing understanding and positive effects of nature and nature sounds for improved mental health in the last year.
Back at the meeting, I offer Mikey's mom a seat facing the window with a view of an ornamental cherry tree surrounded by cement. I point to it and say, "Sometimes a Robin sits in that tree and sings." She darts her eyes at me, and I worry I've said something upsetting. She barks, "Oh. So you're the bird lady!" I laugh a little, and she laughs too, holding out a hand for me to shake. "Well, then, I guess I've got you to thank." I exhale and raise my eyebrows, "Oh?"
"Yeah. You see. All these people keep telling me my boy is a nightmare and that I should put him in his room, give him time-outs, take things away from him, you know, discipline him more, but none of those things ever works for him. He just gets even madder. Now the school is telling me I need to give him medication. And then he comes home this one day, and I won't let him play his video game, cause well, I think it's bad for him. And then I wait for it— for him to have a tantrum like he always does. But this day, he does something different. This day I watch his poor little face get beet red like always. He clenches his hands into fists and starts to tighten his whole body. But instead of screaming or throwing himself on the floor, he stops and says to me, "Mama, I'm going to go look for the red red Robin."
I gasp and hold my hand to my heart. Mikey's mother's eyes well up as she shakes her head and says, "Who would've guessed the damn birds would be the thing!?"
The desire to connect with nature is a longing in each child's soul as old as humanity. Relating ourselves to the forms, patterns, and rhythms of nature while communicating through our sensory pathways is our oldest form of connecting. Connecting with nature, each other, and ourselves is calming to our nervous system.
The natural world was our home for millennia, and our brains and bodies carry the memory of it. There are many ways to begin reacquainting our young ones and ourselves with our true nature— the song of a red robin, the scent of Jasmine, the orange color of a Sugar Maple leaf as it falls, or the feeling of climbing a hill to take in the horizon. When we help young children use their sensory pathways to get acquainted with nature, we are helping them build a lifelong support system for emotional regulation. But thinking must shift from using nature as a tool to entering into a relationship with nature the same way we build a relationship with each other—with curiosity, kind words, adoration, intention, and respect.