Improving student mental health by providing access to nature


by Randy Shore, Vancouver Sun
Adapted from

Children today are more likely to report symptoms of attention disorders and depression, and more likely to be medicated for those problems than at any time in human history, according to author Richard Louv.

Mental health issues, childhood obesity and even online bullying appear to be exacerbated by a lack of access to nature, outdoor play and urban greenspace, said Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life.

Thirty years ago, there was no more than a handful of studies on the restorative effects of natural environments on children. Today, there are more than 500 and their conclusions are spectacularly well-aligned, said Louv. It might be over-extrapolating the research to draw a causal link between nature deprivation and the deteriorating mental and physical health of our children, but the research consistently shows restorative effects when children have improved access to nature, he said.

In short, nature matters.

A series of studies from the University of Illinois have found that playtime in green, outdoor spaces foster creative play and reduce symptoms of attention disorders. And the greener and wilder the environment, the stronger the effect.

In recognition of the potent effect nature has on the mental health of children, doctors with a Portland, Ore., pilot program are writing “park prescriptions” to regulate exposure to the natural environment as part of a longitudinal study on mental health.

“We are genetically wired to be in nature,” said Louv. “When you lose something that is so central to human existence, of course you aren’t going to do so well.”

He notes that Harvard University Prof. Edward O. Wilson says that humans are innately attracted to nature — what he calls biophilia — and that we need experiences in nature for our psychological, physical and spiritual heath.

“I hear the same story from teachers everywhere I go, that the biggest troublemaker in the classroom becomes a leader when you get them into the woods, not just better-behaved, but a leader,” said Louv. “If the troublemaker becomes the leader when they get outside, what are we doing to these kids, these potential leaders?”

A study of 900 elementary schools in Massachusetts found that children attending school with natural green play areas do better on standardized tests than kids in schools without access to nature, even when they controlled for socio-economic factors. Researchers in Chicago came to similar conclusions.

While it’s probably not possible or practical for families to adopt a rural life of unsupervised child-rearing, many families are taking steps to ensure their kids get that potentially healing contact with nature.

The answer, ironically, may be to program unstructured time.

“We have to do this consciously, because it doesn’t happen on its own very often,” he said.

Here are some resources to help teachers and parents get kids outside.

“When kids go out with just their parents, it doesn’t take long before they want to go home and back to their electronic devices,” said Louv. “When kids are out with other kids, they start to play creatively, make up their own rules and games, which has virtually disappeared from the urban childhood experience.”


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