There sure is a lot of noise right now, isn’t there? The news reports about COVID-19 on television or the radio; a bunch of emails about online school; parents doing Zoom meetings at the dining room table; sisters or brothers fighting over the game controller — It all takes a toll on our minds and bodies.
I’ve spent a lot of time explaining ways a family can get outdoors for both exercise and fun, where kids can yell and scream (and maybe parents, too) and forget about COVID-19 in exchange for a bike ride, hike, or ski. Physically, our bodies can only benefit from time outdoors. But did you know taking care of your body also includes your brain and your emotions? This is called “mental health,” and it refers to how we humans think, feel, and behave in a variety of circumstances. Like — right now.
When I was a kid, my parents would often find me perched in a tree, or under a ramshackle fort I’d built using scraps of wood and the drooping branches of the cedar trees in our woodsy back yard. I liked to be with people, but when it was time to be alone, my brain just said “enough,” and I’d wander off to ponder the clouds, the pinecones, and the bugs that crawled along the length of my fort. Sometimes my cat joined me. Being alone recharged me, and it still does, especially when there is a big decision to be made, or a problem to solve.
COVID-19 is scary. It is frightening to see the grownups in your life so worried, but also trying to keep you from worrying. You also might be feeling like some parts of this aren’t so bad, like sleeping in and not having as many rules for school as you did before. That might feel confusing to feel happy when everyone else is so sad. And that’s OK, too. This whole thing is weird.
How about a brain-emotion “recharge?” You may have had a teacher call it “quiet time,” or “sit spots” if you went to outdoor school. Just like I did as a kid (before it had a name), this is a time to be still with yourself, to turn off the noise around you, even if for only a little while. You don’t need to go far from home, you only need nature.
HOW TO SIT STILL:
- Be prepared. Dress for the weather. Here in Alaska, if we’re not moving right now, we’re cold. So dress like it’s outdoor recess but maybe with an extra layer, since your body will be quiet and thus not generating any heat. Same goes for hot places (have water, and sunscreen, and cool clothing).
- Find a spot. The best “sit spots” are those away from your usual daily routine, and someplace where you’ll be able to see, hear, smell, and feel all the benefits of nature. Have a tree in your backyard? Sit under it. At a park? Find a quiet place away from other people (but make sure adults know where you are). If you do this activity as a family (and I highly recommend it), make sure you are spread out enough (hey, physical distancing!) so as not to disturb each other.
- Start small. Even a few minutes of silence will make a difference to your brain. Aim for around 10 though, if you can, to give your body and mind a chance to settle down and be truly still.
- Focus on your senses. Sight: Look above, below, and all around you. What do you see far away? Close up? In the snow? Don’t leave anything out. Hearing: How many sounds, loud and soft, can your sensitive ears hear now that there are no ear buds in them, the television and radio are off, and nobody is talking? Smell: The turn from winter to spring is really interesting, and I always swear to my family the air smells different these days (they don’t always believe me). How about you? What smells, nice or nasty, can you pick out from your spot? Touch: Scrabble around in the dirt or snow. What’s there? Pick up a stick, or run your hands around a tree trunk. How does it feel? Any rocks nearby? Are they rough or smooth? Taste: I don’t really encourage that you taste things without a grownup, but later in the summer, perhaps when the garden is ready or you’re out near a blueberry bush, taste something, and give it a label. Sweet? Sour? Bitter?
- As you add minutes to your sitting still time, think about starting a journal. It can be nature-themed, like observing and sketching or writing about what you’ve experienced in this same spot, day after day. Maybe you and a bird will become friends. Maybe a flower will open up near you. Your journal can also be a place to record your feelings during this time of COVID-19. I am starting “Worry Journals” with my 4-H kids this week, where they can write in full privacy, how they feel and what they think about this time in history.
- You can also pack up a book and a few snacks and read for a while in your “still spot.” I read a lot of Beverly Cleary in my backyard fort, and it was great. This is also a great schedule-break-up for school-assigned books.
Parents and guardians, a few notes to you:
- Give kids their space. With the whole family home it can be difficult for kids to find alone time, something they (and we) need desperately. This “sitting still” time is theirs and theirs alone, under their rules, so allow your children to make up their own guidelines for what works.
- But keep them safe. Make sure you know where your kids are, and if you do this exercise as a family on a hike or outing, do be bear and moose-aware, because it’s that time.
- Provide the tools. A nature journal or worry journal can be made of plain paper and a front and back cover of cardboard or fabric, hole-punched and tied together with string. Let kids make their own and don’t make any rules about what goes in there, but keep the door open for discussion if they need/want it.
- If you want to start this habit with very young children, by all means sit still together. Plop an infant or toddler on your lap and just look around, touch leaves, and go with it, moment by moment, adding no expectations to the experience.
- Join them. Most of us have not worked at home, under duress, with a flock of our own offspring around 24/7. This is hard, and we need to step away from the noise, too. Make it your practice. Model. Savor stillness.