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With a return to school, or if not school certainly a return to learning – we know it will look very different for everyone, especially with discussions around where learning is even taking place for some. Understandably concerns around safety are front and center. What’s also come up in the conversations I’ve had with educators over the last few weeks is their deep concern for their students’ long term well-being as well as everyone’s safety. And that brings home what is at stake as we move to this next stage of what education looks like in the face of a pandemic. Of course we all want to keep each other safe, but beyond organizing physical protocols – the next question arising is, how do we not overlook wellness in the name of safety? 

My interest is in how educators can be supported in their wellness so in turn they can take care of their students. How can we integrate longer-term health and wellness into our safety plan, whether that comprises of in-person or remote learning? Through some simple but intentional actions I think anxiety can be naturally lowered, and a sense of calm and joy increased.

“As our emotional systems have evolved over the millennia in response to the natural environment, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that our comfort is likely to be rooted in key dimensions of “naturalness” that should, therefore, infuse the design process. The stress here is, of course, on the positive aspects of naturalness, such as plenty of natural light, desirable temperature and clean air.” (Rolls Edmund T. Emotion Explained, Oxford University, 2007, p450).

I love the use of the word naturalness in this quote – it sums up the environmental considerations perfectly. If the learning environment is a canvas and the color and joy come from the students and their work, then access to peace and calm comes from nature, from ‘naturalness.’

The truth is, in order to care for their students educators must take care of themselves first. I know that may not be easy in these times, but there are some simple things one can do that make a difference in the day to day. By integrating plants, light and beauty into learning spaces, wherever they are, a feeling of belonging and safety can be created that will serve both educators and students. Whether learning takes place in-person or remotely, these elements can always be included. If there’s the opportunity to conduct learning outside, take it. If learning is happening in a classroom, let as much natural light in as possible, and introduce air-purifying plants like a ZZ Plant, Aloe Vera, Peace Lily or Spider Plant. If communication is happening between teachers and students online; plants, light, and beauty can still be integrated into the space around. Students themselves can be encouraged to go outside, open all the blinds, make their space personal in some way, or move location if possible – from chair, to floor, to standing. Who said learning had to take place seated?   

This more dynamic way of being also fosters joy, as there’s a sense of aliveness, choice and freedom, where playfulness and fun can then grow. This in turn creates a greater connection between educator and child and a greater engagement with their learning for the student; wherever that is taking place. And educators; you can ask your students what makes them feel good, and how and where they think they best learn.

These may seem like small details, and implementing them may seem like a lot in addition to everything else at the moment – but this connection to nature really has been shown to make a real difference to the emotional well-being and level of mental focus of people of every age. And when we go that little bit further by including these things we honor ourselves and each other; where the effort translates to the message, ‘I matter and you matter’.

We need to protect ourselves in the immediate future, but we also need to care for ourselves and each other now and for the long-term. 

I wish you a safe return to learning,