“Clearings. That’s what I needed. Slowly my brain righted itself into spaces unused for months.” (Helen MacDonald)
Summer offers so many ways for rest and rejuvenation. This summer, my family and I journeyed to the Canadian Rockies, where we hiked to a stunning location—Shadow Lake— outside of Banff and experienced absolutely no connectivity for four days. No email, no social media, no news feed, no text to a friend or family member...Just the space for connecting with the beauty of the Rockies and each other.
What did we do? Our primary destination was hiking and exploring Banff National Park during the days; in addition, we experienced the gift of slow time. Our days seemed expansive. We watched birds, admired the glow of a late-setting sun on a lake, lingered over meals, actually completed the Sunday crossword, played cards, napped, and read.
And while four days of this kind of time and spaces might not seem like a long-enough stretch to truly unplug, for my husband Will and me, and our two working 20-something children, the complete break provided space to more fully connect with each other and to restore.
Much of this rejuvenation came from just being out in nature: According to The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, “Scientists are quantifying nature’s effects not only on our mood and well-being, but also on our ability to think—to remember things, to create, to daydream, and to focus—as well as on our social skills.” She also notes that people are less likely to obsess over negative thoughts when they walk in nature, as compared to a city setting.
The other benefit, at least for me, was an appreciation of improved focus and retention. I was able to finish several books, write, and fully attend to those I was with. Williams notes, “Directed attention, or voluntary attention is a limited resource. When it flags, we make mistakes, we get irritable. Moreover, task-switching, which is something we do an awful lot of these days, burns up precious oxygenated glucose from the prefrontal cortex...and this is energy we need for both cognitive and physical performance.”
As I look ahead to our project across the street on our South Campus, I’m even more excited about the green space we are developing. Out of the eight acres, six or so will serve as an “educational green belt” with walking paths, learning nooks, outdoor classrooms, a garden, and maybe even a meditation labyrinth. Of course, the buildings are equally exciting—with state-of-the-art STEM learning centers, collaboration spaces and a Performing Arts Center—but this kind of open and lightly programmed space will add to our goal of improving well-being and connection with nature. When I shared the plans with our Middle Schoolers last spring, they oohed and ahhed over almost every image. But, their enthusiasm was palpable when they applauded and cheered at the map of the walking paths and outdoor classrooms.
My personal goals for this year include continuing to find intentional time at the beach, on the Oakland trails, out-of-doors-and to foster opportunities for this kind of thinking, creativity and connection. With our “Fallout” trips for Middle and Upper School students in the fall, and field trips to Sausal Creek and the Alameda shoreline in the Lower School, we build in many opportunities for an easy and local connection to the outdoors.
Williams ends with a simple prescription: “Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.” I invite you do to the same. Please send me your thoughts, your photos, your ideas on how your family practices this kind of mindfulness.