Children today are spending very little time outdoors. According to the National Wildlife Federation, “The average American boy or girl spends just four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen.”
And spending so much time indoors doesn’t seem to be helping children’s mental health. Stress, anxiety, and depression among youth are more prevalent than ever. While rates of depression and anxiety among young people in the U.S. have been increasing over the last few decades, so has the use of antidepressants and medication for ADHD in children.
Consistent with these trends, recent research suggests that one way to cure children’s stress and anxiety is to give them a dose of “green time”. Spending time in nature helps children develop critical thinking skills, enhances social interactions among children and families, and some studies have shown it can actually play a significant role in healing trauma.
For example, in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder, Richard Louv notes: “…new evidence suggests that the need for mental health medications is intensified by children’s disconnection from nature. Although exposure to nature may have no impact on the most severe depressions, we do know that nature experiences can relieve some of the everyday pressures that may lead to childhood depression.”
But my kid doesn’t like the outdoors!
Being in nature can bring up feelings for young people. Some children will happily jump into the car and join you for a hike. But others will complain, resist, or cry at each bend in the trail.
If your child balks at the idea of leaving the house for a hike in the wilderness, or throws a tantrum on the trail, here are a few things to try:
- Special time, followed by firm limits. Before you leave the house, offer your child a rich dose of special time. Whether it’s 15 or thirty minutes, let them know that this time is theirs, they can do whatever they’d like and you’ll be with them with delighted attention. After a regular practice of special time, children are often more flexible and more willing to try new things. At the end of special time let them know that it’s time to explore nature or hit the trail. If they resist, listen to their complaints—don’t negotiate or offer rewards. Just listen and let them know that you’re going on the hike.
- Listen to their protests. If you’re just starting your hike and they say they’ve had enough, listen to them where they are. Let them know that you think they can walk more and notice how they respond. If they start to cry or tantrum, bend down and listen through the tears. Remember, you don’t have to say much. Sometimes it takes a lot of listening through complaints and upsets before a child can really enjoy a hike or feel comfortable camping or tromping through the woods. But when they finally feel more comfortable outdoors, it’s worth it!
- Let them do outdoor time their way. When you do get them out for the walk, listen to what they have to say and enjoy their exploration. Whether they want to watch a bug rolling through the dirt for ten minutes or throw rocks in the stream for twenty—stop to appreciate the way they enjoy nature.
- You can even try special time right there on your hike, as did one mom I know: As they were nearing the end of the hike, her young daughter become cranky and wanted to be carried the rest of the way. The mom, who was tired and hungry herself, suggested doing a few minutes of special time right there in the woods. Her daughter perked up at the idea and decided she wanted to pretend that she was the mom and her mother was the little girl. “She took the lead,” the mom recalls, “and climbed up every rock she could find, then jumped off. She encouraged me to do the same. Instead of being the competent mom who can do anything, I played the scared little girl and begged her to hold my hands and help me. She loved this. It was amazing to watch her go from tired and cranky to energetic and confident. I loved watching her determination as she tackled some larger rocks and hearing her proclaim, ‘I believe in myself!’ as she jumped from smaller rocks without help.”
Facing fears of nature can heal us
Spending time outdoors can be especially healing for the very children who hesitate the most. Indeed, one way that time in the wilderness can improve mental health is by giving children an opportunity to face their fears. As they come face to face with the possibility of encountering a bobcat on a secluded trail, or the deafening silence of the woods at nightfall, children can often release their fears and anxiety and emerge contented and energized. I’ll illustrate by telling the story of Adrian, a student at an all-boys school where I worked.
At this school, they had a tradition of going camping with each grade at the end of the school year. There were several boys in the sixth grade who had never been camping before and had never spent much time in nature.
One of those boys was eleven-year-old Adrian. Adrian had experienced a lot of trauma in his life. As a toddler, he was physically and verbally abused; at eight he was adopted by a new family. He struggled with school and often argued with his parents and teachers.
When Adrian got to the campsite, he worked with his classmates to set up tents and prepare dinner. But as dusk descended, he became nervous and uneasy; when darkness set in, he was terrified and couldn’t sleep.
One of the teachers tried to comfort him, but Adrian’s fears engulfed him and he started shaking, tears rolling down his face. His teacher stood by his side and comforted him, but Adrian began vomiting. Adrian trembled and cried for almost an hour, until he was eventually able to crawl into his sleeping bag and fall asleep.
There were other boys on that trip who were also working through fears of the wilderness. But the remarkable thing about Adrian is that when he returned to school on Monday, he looked different. His face was more relaxed, his tone was softer, and he was happy to be at school again. He worked hard in the last few weeks of school to get his work in, and the conflicts he had had with his teachers and friends subsided.
For children like Adrian who have built-up tension and anxiety to let go of, facing their fears of the outdoors can be a valuable opportunity to release their burdens and find more peace.
Getting outdoors will pay off for the whole family
When we’re caught up in our busy lives, or stressed or distracted, it’s easy to forget those outdoor outings. But everyone can benefit from a “green dose”—kids, certainly, but adults too! Not only does nature foster creative play and problem solving skills, it may increase our ability to think more clearly, and handle life’s stresses more effectively.
While children accustomed to spending most of their time indoors—which is most children, these days—may need some time to adjust to playing outside, cultivating their comfort in and appreciation for the outdoors will prove richly worthwhile. Parents often notice that their children are more relaxed and content while playing in nature, and that their own interactions with their children improve. As many studies suggest, one of the main benefits of spending time in nature is stress reduction. According to research collected by the National Wildlife Federation: “Children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces.” Nature can be the healing balm that we all need!