Using Our Senses

January 14, 2020

What was your first memory of ‘being’ in nature? The first recollection of sitting back, looking around, taking a deep breath, and connecting? In recent decades, fewer and fewer children have experienced the oneness that comes from feeling nature. This is in part due to technology, schedules, and expectations. But, perhaps, it is also because as adults, we, too, have become overwhelmed by our to-do lists and separated from the natural world. At Southern Highlands Reserve, we are committed to connecting people to nature.

Hundreds of studies have documented the effect of nature on health outcomes: In Copenhagen, living a short distance from a garden or park has been linked to less stress and a lower body mass index. In the United States, children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were more able to focus in a natural. Another study from the United States revealed that children in low-income households lowered their risk for asthma by living near areas with higher tree density. In Japan, greener neighborhoods and more parks were associated with greater longevity among the elderly. One study even suggests that nature exposure can help reduce health disparities, improving health outcomes in poorer communities so that they more closely match those from wealthier neighborhoods.

It is for this reason that Southern Highlands Reserve and TC Henderson Elementary School have developed a partnership to remedy the situation through recurrent, hands-on outdoor activities. Each activity and meeting have been designed in an intentional way to place students back in the natural environment where connections are made and ideas come to life.

During our last visit, the lessons centered on “plant senses,” serving as a link between plants and the student’s regular school curriculum– the human senses and the human body. Students learned about heliotropism; a sunflower’s ability to “see” and follow the sun. They learned about the pitcher plant’s “taste” for insects to supplement its nutrition. The dodder plant stretched itself toward a tomato plant “smelling” its next parasitic victim. Students cupped their hands to their ears to mimic the buttercup and other flowers whose shape allows them to “listen” for the buzzing of bees to initiate nectar production. But the biggest treat for students was the chance to witness the sensitive mimosa fold its leaves like praying hands when it would “feel” the brush of a finger or insect.

After a review of the senses, younger students were given recycled egg cartons to create their own nature sensory boxes. They collected cones, pine needles, seeds, leaves, and an eclectic assortment of other findings while wandering the trails outside the school. They were encouraged to see, smell, feel, and hear nature as we wandered the trails. But we did dissuade them from using their taste senses until a later lesson…

Older students were given alstroemeria flowers, a flower that is scientifically considered perfect because it has all the parts of a flower. The students dissected the flower, pulling apart the sepals, the petals, the stamens and pistils, the pedicel, and the leaves. Students then compared the structure and function of these flower parts to the structure and function of animal body parts. For example, the pedicel (or flower stem) helps hold the flower up straight and tall, so many students compared it to legs or the spine or skeletal system.

One of the greatest treats in working with TC Henderson has been the teachers. While it’s fun and exhilarating to see the students marvel over a pitcher plant, it is just as incredible to watch the teachers giddily reach out to touch the sensitive mimosa and watch it close its leaves in reaction. Needless to say, we’re thrilled for our next venture into the classroom. Thanks to a recent grant from the Pisgah Health Foundation, this outreach work is only just beginning! Furthermore, with help from our dedicated Steward and Sustainer donors, this is just one way opportunity to pay forward the gifts we receive.