Hello and welcome back!
As you are reading this all across the country parents, students, and teachers are preparing to enter the new school year. For most students and their families, school is a place where learning and socialization can take place without interference.
However, for some students school can be difficult for a variety of reasons. Some struggle with mental health problems like ADHD, anxiety, and depression which already make life more challenging and can make school a particularly difficult place for them. Something research has shown us to be true time and time again is that getting children and teens outdoors can be helpful for their mental health. Multiple research studies on the effects of nature on mental well-being have been conducted around the world.
The most interesting research findings have to do with the interaction and engagement with nature for children and teens who have difficulty regulating their attention, specifically those diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. In a systematic review of research, Tillman, Tobin, Avison, et.al. (2018) found that increased engagement in the outdoors has a marked impact in the reduction of symptoms associated with ADD/ADHD.
This significant finding has important implications in both the school and family systems. Starting exposure to and engagement with the outdoors when children are younger and providing continued access and engagement at school and at home can be a necessary treatment intervention. It is also worth noting these same authors concluded that engagement and interaction with the outdoors had a strong positive impact on overall mental health, stress, resilience, as well as health related quality of life factors.
Getting outdoors, specifically in nature, has been shown to have restorative properties as well. The peacefulness of nature allows for bottom-up (involuntary/automatic) attention rather than top-down (voluntary/sustained), meaning that the cognitive areas of the brain that have to do direct, sustained, goal-oriented attention have a chance to recharge, which makes them more effective. In essence, exposure to and/or interacting with nature provides children and teens with a chance to refresh their cognitive processes and potentially do better on tests and/or tasks that require sustained mental effort/ attention.
In a fast-paced, urbanized, and digital screen-oriented world, nature can bring peace and rest to a distracted and frazzled brain. Put another way: “To consider the availability of nature as merely an amenity fails to recognize the vital importance of nature in effective cognitive functioning” (Bernin, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2009, p 1211).
Whether it’s exposure to green spaces or interaction with nature through hiking or walking, getting outdoors can be helpful to children and teens (adults, too). Why not try your own experiment? Find a local nature trail near you and go for a 20 minute walk every day and see what kind of effect it has on your own attention, mood, and stress.
Now, go take a hike!
Tillmann S, Tobin D, Avison W, et al. Mental health benefits of interactions with nature in children and teenagers: a systematic review. J Epidemiol Community Health 2018;72:958-966.
Berman, Marc & Jonides, John & Kaplan, Stephen. (2009). The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature. Psychological science. 19. 1207-12. 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x.