Lying on your back, watching the clouds go by, is a mighty pleasant way to spend part of a spring afternoon.
And for the lucky students of the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, it just so happened to be part of the curriculum as the school marked Mental Health Awareness Month in May with a focus on how nature can help promote mental health.
“Paying very close attention to the clouds in the sky involves mindfulness. It’s a kind of meditative practice,” Dr. Ilana Kustanowitz, the school’s psychologist, said.
To help ensure that the students actually paid close attention — this is school after all — they were given pads to sketch what they noticed in the clouds.
This “cloudgazing” was only one of the tools for mental health that students explored.
“The more we have these types of activities where students are learning coping skills, the more they’ll have the tools for when things do feel tough,” Alexandra Tal, the school’s social worker, said.
The educators began the month’s focus on mental health by asking students to describe what mental health meant to them.
“Some shared it means hanging out with friends and jumping on a trampoline,” Ms. Tal said. “Others said it means having difficult feelings and a way to cope with them.”
“The more we talk about mental health and the more we use the words mental health, the more comfortable kids will be to come in and talk about things in their lives,” Ms. Tal said.
In figuring out how to mark the month, Dr. Kustanowitz and Ms. Tal looked to Britain, where Mental Health UK marked its Mental Health Awareness Week with a theme of reconnecting to nature.
“Nature felt like a great, easily accessible tool for all of our students to learn ways to take advantage of something that’s readily accessible,” Ms. Tal said.
“It’s such a great niche for us,” Dr. Kustanowitz added. “We’ve had so much outside education this year.” Because of pandemic restrictions, the school has been holding recess, and eating meals and snacks outside.
The school’s organic garden was another opportunity to bring the students and nature together. Ms. Tal took students there to gather herbs, while explaining the ways that different scents can elevate moods. “It was an amazing sensory experience,” she said. “They got to feel and smell the different herbs.” Then they added the herbs they picked into little sachets along with lavender and spearmint (bought in bulk, not harvested from the garden) to create little spice bags they could use for havdalah at home or keep by their desk to help calm down if they get anxious before a test.
“Lavender has real therapeutic value,” Ms. Tal said. “It can calm down your sympathetic nervous system. Many kids already knew about this — they live in a world where their parents are buying natural herbs and lavender scents and spraying it on their pillows.”
Another activity took kids outdoors on a “rainbow walk.” They had to spot something in each color — red, orange, yellow, etc. “They walked around and noticed things they might not have noticed before. They learned to be in the moment.”
Some of the mental health programming was more prescriptive. “We spoke about the importance of sleep,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “Historically, lack of sleep was regarded almost as a badge of honor. We’ve been trying to shift the conversation. Sleep is so important. It’s essential to your mental health, no different than exercise or nutrition.
“We want the children to feel empowered to promote their own mental health. There are serious cases where you need to reach out to a mental health practitioner, of course, but we’re talking on a typical day,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. And talking about mental health makes it easier to approach the professionals when the situation requires it, she said.
“Mental health and wellness go hand in hand. It’s not just about the absence of an anxiety disorder or depression; it’s how do you promote your overall well-being every day. Why is going for a walk valuable? Why is being outside listening to birds chirping valuable? Those are really healthy things to do. We want the kids to hear all these things, so if they try yoga, if they try some meditation, if they try some nature walking, even if it doesn’t become a habit now, they’ll remember long-term. It’s a smorgasbord: We’re putting out all the different options and seeing what sticks along the way.”
These practices weren’t all saved for mental health month. Dr. Kustanowitz and Ms. Tal helped the students master techniques of meditation and mindfulness throughout the school year.
“We used a program called Headspace a few times in our middle school,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “In the lower school, we did many lessons on meditation. The first times you do it, it’s really hard for the kids to relax and calm their body. Over time they get better at it, and they ask for it. Many of our teachers incorporate that into the kids’ day.”
Mental Health Awareness Month came toward the end of what “has been a really hard year for many kids,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “Wearing the mask has had an impact on many of them. It has been hard for many to socialize. You can’t quite hear with the masks. When you can’t hear and it’s hard to connect, it affects your self-esteem.
“It’s really hard to take a deep breath when you’re wearing a mask. That coping strategy isn’t quite as natural with a mask.
“Now that the rates are dropping and there is light at the end of the tunnel, kids are trying to figure out how to reintegrate, how to use social skills they have not completely practiced over the past year. Kids aren’t going to birthday parties. They’re not having sleepovers. Now that stuff is opening up, it feels quite daunting for them.”