Children today are stressed. Mental health conditions are on the rise, physical abilities are in a state of decline and screens are doing their part to stun a child’s social development, with some kids rarely opting for play with real kids in real life.
For years, we've known that nature is a stress reliever for adults, with the calming and restorative effects of nature. And now there is also ample evidence suggesting that children be restored by nature.
Being in nature has been associated with lower levels of both self-reported and physiological measures of stress in children.
Experts say that when brought into their lives thoughtfully, nature can be a simple, time-efficient and free fix for stressed-out kids.
Miyazaki Yoshifumi has been researching shinrin-yoku, or the Japanese practice known as "forest bathing" for three decades. Forest Bathing involves bathing in the forest atmosphere or taking in the forest through the senses. The practice has been studied extensively, and researchers have found that forest bathing can lead to a host of benefits to people including reduced pulse rates, depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion.
But what about one of the most stressed out groups of kids— adolescents? How effective can going into a forest be for the age group swathed in digital culture, dealing with incredible social and societal pressures? In Yoshifumi's experiments with high school students in which he has asked them to observe roses and leafy plants, he says that the adolescents experienced a physiological relaxation effect just by looking at the roses and plants.
How much nature and how often should children be exposed to nature? Do kids have to set out for a daily walk through a virgin forest or backcountry hike through every one of the National Parks to benefit from nature?
Not at all say the experts.
Just one day a week of outdoor learning in a forest setting showed healthier levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to one study. In the study, cortisol dropped over the course of the school day when lessons were held in the forest but not in the classroom.
Of course, most children don’t have access to a forest school. In fact, most public schools do very little learning outdoors. Still, our child can still benefit from nature’s stress-reducing potential if their classroom window has just a view of vegetation. One recent study showed just that— that a simple view of vegetation from a high school classroom window led to decreased heart rate and self-reported stress in students.
If your child's school is poorly designed without nature in mind or outdoor learning, take matters into your own hands with abundant outdoor free play. An American Academy of Pediatrics 2007 report on the importance of play states that play protects children’s emotional development whereas loss of free time in combination with a hurried lifestyle can be a source of stress, anxiety and may even contribute to depression for many children.
Of course, as much time as possible outdoors is great for a kid’s physical, mental and emotional fitness but even a quick fix is possible. A child's stress levels will fall within minutes of seeing green spaces. In an interview, Yoshifumi concurs. “During our research, we found that even small elements of nature have a physiological relaxation effect. They also have the benefit that you can be in contact with them for long periods of time.”