Ahh, there’s nothing better than some time with Mother Nature.

Breathing the fresh air, being unplugged and disconnected, experiencing the peacefulness of the outdoors ... it’s pretty fantastic.

When kids go outside and play in nature, there are real benefits to both physical health and emotional well-being. The only problem is, kids are spending less time in nature and more time hooked up to their tablets, smartphones, and video games.


Maybe it’s time to put down that device and take a walk in the woods!

That's why in Denmark, “forest kindergartens” have scrapped the traditional preschool classroom.

These schools take kids back into nature, allowing them to learn through free play and exploration. And this less structured preschool setup seems to be working. According to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Danish schools outperformed American schools in math and science.

Luckily, Danes aren’t the only ones taking early childhood education back into nature.

There is a growing movement of forest schools right here in the United States as well. Here are just a few of them (and they’re all pretty awesome).

1. Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten (Vashon, Washington)

Kids at Cedarsong head off to another adventure in the forest. Photo by Cedarsong Nature School used with permission

In a typical preschool, you'd likely see a plethora of brightly colored toys, a water/sand table (my personal favorite), puzzles, blocks, and if you’re lucky, an outdoor playground. Basically, you’d never run out of activities to do.

Well, at Cedarsong Nature School, things are just a little bit different. Cedarsong believes in an unstructured immersion in nature. This means there is no set agenda, projects, or teacher direction. Cedarsong sees a value in just being in nature, not necessarily even needing to “do” anything.

Building a "dam" in the mud. Photo by Cedarsong Nature School, used with permission

At Cedarsong Nature School, kids are encouraged to explore, ask questions, cooperate with one another, and take moderate risks to build self-confidence. Teachers guide students in their curiosity about nature, but don’t hover over the kids or monitor their every move.

2. Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center (Mystic, Connecticut)

Who needs a tablet when you have a forest? (And a bunny!) Photos by Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, used with permission

The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center preschool certainly lives up to its motto: “nature is our niche.” The preschool is situated on a 400-acre nature preserve, complete with meadows, ponds, hiking trails, and plenty of rocks and trees to climb on. They consider these grounds to be a “living classroom,” which is a pretty cool concept!

The DPNC Nature Preschool has turned down offers to create a structured "nature playground." They believe that nature creates its own playground, where children can create their imaginative, limitless fun.

3. Little Tree Huggers (Leesburg, Virginia)

Making new friends at Little Tree Huggers. Photo by Heaton Johnsonm used with permission

At Little Tree Huggers, children not only learn about math and language arts, but are also immersed in Spanish and exposed to German and Italian. However, what truly sets LTH apart from a “normal” preschool is that most instruction takes place outdoors in a natural environment surrounded farm animals.

Kids and chickens, what better combination? Photo by Heaton Johnson, used with permission

Children have the freedom to choose their playtime activities, which might include interacting with animals, making paintings with natural materials, or listening to the sounds of nature from the Little Tree Huggers observation deck. There is an emphasis on sustainability, teaching kids from a young age how to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

4. Worldmind Nature Immersion School (Denver, Colorado)

A little snow and ice can't keep these kids from having fun. Photo by Worldmind School, used with permission

Located in Colorado, Worldmind Nature Immersion School has its fair share of extreme weather. But no matter the season, one thing remains the same. Kids spend the entire day outside — they don’t even have an indoor facility!

Tree trunk too high? Not for these kids! Photo by Worldmind School, used with permission

School classes are held entirely on public land, exploring open space and city parks to connect children to the ecology of where they live. If there is extremely severe weather, they’ll explore indoor places, such as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, to enhance their learning of the natural world. Worldmind School provides an informal setting for learning to naturally occur during free outdoor playtime.

5. Nature Preschool at Irvine (Owings Mills, Maryland)

Catching butterflies or going for a hike sure beats the classroom. Photo by Nature Preschool at Irvine, used with permission

At the Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center, teachers act as guides, allowing children to venture out and discover the magic of nature in unstructured nature play. Children develop responsibility and independence through everything they do, from putting their own boots on to composting an apple to feeding the birds.

While the learning here takes place almost entirely in nature, it is licensed by the state of Maryland and accredited by the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), showing that these nature-immersion schools still provide a strong foundation. However, Irvine Nature Preschool doesn’t rush or force the learning process; it allows children to learn and develop at their own natural pace.

6. Mother Earth School (Portland, Oregon)

Learning how to use (real) tools. Photo by Mother Earth School, used with permission

At Mother Earth School, children play in a grove of cedar trees, the perfect backdrop for free play. Kids use their imagination to make the forest come to life. Who needs plastic toys (or any toys, really), when you can make a tree branch become a fishing pole or turn a log into a train?

There's plenty of time for free play each day, in addition to time spent making natural arts and crafts. Kids here begin learning how to carve wood with real Swiss-made knives at the age of four (um, I can’t do that, and I’m an adult) — talk about fine motor skills!

During snack time, kids help to build the fire and then get to enjoy organic snacks cooked on a rocket stove and bread baked fresh in a cob oven. This sounds a whole lot more exciting than the Nilla wafers I ate from a box (which were admittedly delicious) during my preschool years!

7. Berkeley Forest School (Berkeley, California)

Forget electronics. Trees are all these kids need! Photo by Berkeley Forest School, used with permission

While there is a daily routine at Berkeley Forest School, no two days end up the same. The discoveries kids make on their daily adventures provide inspiration for sensory-based learning activities. A typical day includes observing wildlife and journaling about the findings, building swings and shelters in the woods, and building and cooking on an open fire.

Look at that concentration! Photo by Berkeley Forest School, used with permission

The forest school movement is continuing to expand in the United States (and around the world), taking kids out of structured classroom and back into nature.

Hooray for forest schools! Photos by Nature Preschool at Irvine used with permission

Judging by the looks on these kids faces, it seems like these programs are doing something (perhaps almost everything) right!

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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Of course, wrecks aside, buying a used car might end up costing more in the long run after needing repairs, breaking down and just a general slew of unexpected surprises. But hey, at least we can all look back and laugh.

My first car, for example, was a hand-me-down Toyota of some sort from my mother. I don’t recall the specific model, but I definitely remember getting into a fender bender within the first week of having it. She had forgotten to get the brakes fixed … isn’t that a fun story?

Jimmy Fallon recently asked his “Tonight Show” audience on Twitter to share their own worst car experiences. Some of them make my brake fiasco look like cakewalk (or cakedrive, in this case). Either way, these responses might make us all feel a little less alone. Or at the very least, give us a chuckle.

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