For long stretches as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, children have been deprived of all the normal things most people take for granted in childhood – playdates, sleepovers, visits with their grandparents, among other things. The normal process of socialization has been shattered as they’ve been forced to adjust to learning and socializing mostly on Zoom.
A recent study from a group of Quebec researchers reinforces the idea that children, particularly those with developmental issues or health problems, may be particularly vulnerable to the interruptions to their regular routines caused by the pandemic. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry in December 2021, suggests children were particularly susceptible to disrupted sleep patterns, loneliness and isolation.
Thanks to funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, a McGill Professor and Canada Research Chair in Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention has created a program which she believes could potentially benefit the mental health of disadvantaged children in Quebec.
The healing power of nature
During the next few months, Marie-Claude Geoffroy will lead an effort to recruit 2,000 Grade 6 students for a program called École à Ciel Ouvert (Open Sky School). Her goal is to look into whether learning outdoors in nature can help offset some of the harsher effects of the interruptions caused by the COVID-19 restrictions.
“There is a large body of evidence from scientific research studies – including my own research – which supports that contact with nature improves mental health, such as by reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, suicidal ideation and inattention,” Geoffroy says. “In light of recent findings from the research literature, a growing number of initiatives have emerged to encourage individuals to spend time in nature, especially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. These practices have been increasingly encouraged in the education sector, where a growing, but still limited, number of teachers are practicing outdoor education.”
Geoffroy points out, however, that our understanding of the impact of this kind of outdoor learning on kids is limited due to a lack of experimental studies. She hopes the École à Ciel Ouvert project can fill the gap.
Recruiting in disadvantaged settings
In the early part of this year, Geoffroy will begin recruiting students and teachers from 80 French-language schools, all located in low-income neighbourhoods across Quebec. Geoffroy says they zeroed in on low-income neighbourhoods because of the widening inequalities brought on by the pandemic.
“From March to June 2022, we will be testing out our activities with 6th Grade teachers,” Geoffroy says. “We will need to recruit 10 to 15 teachers willing to try out our activities with their children and giving us feedback. Our aim is to integrate the inputs of the teachers to refine our activities, so they are enjoyable and be easily implemented.”
From September to December, her team plans to conduct a pilot study, with a full study to be run from March to June of 2023 – a period which, she says, would be ideal for outdoor education, allowing for kids to experience winter, spring and the early part of summer.
Mixing traditional classroom activities with the great outdoors
The program will see children spend two hours per week learning outdoors, at a nearby park or forest, for a period of 12 weeks. Aside from holding regular classroom activities outdoors, Geoffroy says the program will include “salutogenic” ideas – a range of activities designed to promote physical and mental well-being, including mindfulness in nature, art, and what Geoffroy calls “philosophy for children.”
“The intervention will consist of activities aimed at promoting better mental health, such as mindfulness and art, and promoting the achievement of educational targets – didactics of mathematics and natural sciences,” Geoffroy says.
The activities will be designed by experts in outdoor education. The teachers, meanwhile, will receive weekly individualized supervision by outdoor education and mental health experts.
Geoffroy hopes the program will improve the overall well-being of both the teachers and children.
“If our interventions work, we will make our activities available to all teachers via a website,” Geoffroy says.