Kids Feeling Stressed? Try Nature Rx

Boy hanging upside-down from a tree branch

Kids Feeling Stressed? Try Nature Rx

Angel dos Santos Burres was startled to find that a group of children she worked with in Boston didn’t know the words acorn or pinecone.

“I remember some children being very excited to play with pinecones for the first time,” she said. “One said, “Ooo, where can we buy some of these?” And I told her, “You don’t need to buy them: They’re nature!”

Burres is the director for Outdoors Rx at Appalachian Mountain Club, a program that serves nearly 11,000 children and adults in the Boston area. It began when doctors at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children began issuing written prescriptions for outdoor physical activity. Families can sign up for a month of weekend expeditions to parks and seashore and can continue to re-enroll as often as they like. “We have a lot of families that come regularly,” says Burres. “Some even make friends with other families there and go out on nature excursions together.”

Outdoors Rx is part of a movement known as nature therapy, also known as ecotherapy or “green therapy.” According to UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco, research suggests that access to nature can help prevent and treat chronic illnesses “because it relieves stress, encourages social bonds, and supports physical activity…The fact that nature helps buffer stress also helps ease depression, anxiety, and isolation.” Some scientists have also done studies that found spending time in nature is “widely effective” at reducing symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

As part of Outdoors Rx, Burres wants everyone to know “about the amazing green space in their communities and to have the confidence to explore it.” To make families more comfortable — particularly if they’re never visited the woods — Outdoors Rx leads scavenger hunts, getting to know you activities, and a group picnic on each expedition. “Some parents have reported that they and their kids are now spending whole days on the weekend outdoors,” said former Outdoors Rx Program Manager Emily Grilli-Scott. “They’re really enjoying it.”

Burres added that one father who had been bringing his daughter on the excursions for years told her that spending time outdoors in with other families — “a real community” — was one of the program’s unexpected blessings: “‘We found something here we didn’t know we were looking for, he concluded.'”

Here are some ways parents can help their children benefit from nature therapy, courtesy of Outdoors Rx, Children and Nature Network co-founder Richard Louv, and Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL):

  1. Get outside with your kids. ”You would think it would be ideal to let kids run loose and come back dirty and happy at the end of the day, but in reality this is not likely to happen anymore,” Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, told Scholastic.com recently. “We have to come up with new ways for kids to have direct contact with nature. This probably means parents have to get out there with their kids, and explore with them.”
  2. Zero in on the “wild” parts of a park or playground. “Rough edges are the places children gravitate toward to explore, where they find rocks and weeds and bugs,” Louv says. “Efforts to provide nice-looking and safe outdoor spaces are well intentioned, but they give kids the message that nature is not something you go out in to get your hands dirty.”
  3. Create a habitat for outdoor play in your backyard. As Michael Follett of Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) told us, “Create or find spaces that are rich in cheap junk resources or sand, wood, water and mud — that way, they can move them around and use them in any way they want.” 
  4. Look for city, county or nonprofit groups offering free nature programs for kids and families. Outdoors Rx, Urban Releaf, Latino Outdoors, and Trail Brothers are some of the many programs set up to help kids and their families explore nature — many for the first time. “There was a group of Latina moms with toddlers who were interested in getting outside more, and I recommended that they take a stroll in the nearby park,” recalls Jose Gonzalez of Latino Outdoors. “They said, ‘We want you to come with us.’ So I did, and we’ve been walking ever since.”
  5. Start a garden. Besides having fun outside, children who garden tend to eat more fruits and vegetables.

References

Louv, R. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Your Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books, 2016.

Kondo MC, South, EC & Branas CC. Nature-Based Strategies for Improving Urban Health and Safety. J Urban Health, 2015; 92: 800.

Razani, N. Effect of park prescriptions with and without group visits to parks on stress reduction in low-income parents: SHINE randomized trial. PLos One 2018, 13 (2). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5814008/

Razani, N. Clinic and park partnerships for childhood resilience: A prospective study of park prescriptions. Health Place. 2019 May. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31060017

Why Kids Need Nature. Scholastic, n.d. https://www.scholastic.com/parents/family-life/parent-child/why-kids-need-nature.html