By Sandi Schwartz
You know your kids are growing up when they no longer have recess at school. When my son started middle school, recess and even physical education were no longer part of his schedule. While he could choose a gym class, he opted for a hectic academic schedule instead. This shift really worried me because I know how beneficial a relaxing break outdoors can be for him.
Time outdoors in nature can help reduce stress and enhance mood. It has also been shown to improve focus and attention; boost creativity; decrease feelings of irritability and anger; and lower physical symptoms of stress like blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension. There is now so much science to back this up that more doctors are even giving out nature prescriptions to their patients to encourage them to reduce stress and balance time on screens with time outdoors doing activities they enjoy. In fact, a groundbreaking study published in 2019 in Scientific Reports found that spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and well-being.
A number of stressors are taking a toll on our teens. Indeed, child and adolescent mental health disorders are the most common illnesses that youth will experience under the age of eighteen. With the rise in mental health issues like anxiety and depression in addition to physical health issues like obesity due to factors including technology use, it is clear that we need to do something to help our teens. Nature can be a big part of the solution.
But what do we do about teens who are too busy and feel like they are too old to play outside?
All of us—including teenagers—need healthy breaks throughout the day to recharge and get back to a balanced state both mentally and physically. This will help them come back energized and inspired as they continue on with their day. If they do not get these necessary breaks, they will probably burn out before they even have the chance to receive their high school diploma.
It turns out that my son actually gets more time outdoors during his school day than I initially realized. I shadowed his daily schedule during back-to-school night and quickly learned that he runs outside all over campus, back and forth between buildings, throughout the day. He also eats lunch outside most days. I was thrilled to discover this, but realize this is not the case for most teens who have a different type of school set up or who live in a colder climate.
So, how can we help teens get the nature breaks they need throughout their week? My biggest advice is to start with what they already love. If they are athletic, sign them up for outdoor sports. If they are artistic, consider art projects like nature photography or drawing outside. If they love to cook, start a family garden and enjoy creating delicious meals together. If they love math and science, get them involved in nature-related experiments.
Here are some more fun ways to get teens outside that they won’t think they are too cool for:
Carve out some time after school or on the weekends to get away to places that fill your teen with a sense of peace and relaxation. Some ideas include parks, botanical gardens, sculpture gardens, nature centers, wildlife refuges, hiking trails, and fountains. Depending on where you live, maybe you can head over to the beach or a lake to enjoy the sights and sounds of the water. If your teens are old enough, encourage them to plan a fun outdoorsy day trip with friends to go hiking, birdwatching, or to simply hang out and relax.
Many teens love traveling to discover exciting new places. Taking them on outdoor adventures to try something fun and challenging can play a significant role in their happiness and personal growth, not to mention all the precious memories you will build together. Some ideas include camping, boating, kayaking, river rafting, caving, mountain biking, rock climbing, zip lining, geo-caching, skiing, surfing, and doing a ropes course.
Another great way to get your teens connecting to nature more often is to organize gatherings that take place outdoors. This can be as simple as having your kids eat breakfast outside before school or setting up your family dinner in your backyard. See if your teens want to invite some friends over to study or to enjoy a barbeque. Organize a family gathering for an upcoming holiday, but instead of sitting around your dining room table, take the fun outside (even if it means wearing sweaters or coats). Always look for opportunities for more outdoor time as holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions arise.
Once a pet lover, always a pet lover. If you have a family pet, then give your teen more responsibility to take care of it. This can really help them feel better since animals can have a profound impact on well-being by reducing stress and improving mood. Making time for a pet break before or after school, such as going for a walk or simply petting the animal, can give your teen a real happiness boost.
Whether or not your teen has a community service requirement at their school, volunteering has so many benefits to their health and well-being. The simple act of doing something for another can trigger positive emotions that help them feel happier and calmer. By combining community service and nature, teens can experience a double dose of stress-busting bliss. Some ideas include:
- Citizen Science: Gain science experience and help the scientific community by collecting scientific data. Find projects at CitizenScience.gov, SciStarter, and Zooniverse.
- Parks and Nature Centers: Local, state, and national parks and wildlife preserves often need help with projects like hiking trail maintenance, planting trees, and removing invasive plant species.
- Cleanups: Participate in a trash cleanup at a park, beach, lake, river, or other location. Find cleanup events by contacting your city or county’s sustainability or environmental director or through Ocean Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, and volunteercleanup.org.
- Community Gardens and Local Farms: Both community gardens and local farms need help with planting seeds, watering plants, weeding, composting, and picking produce.
And remember, teens are not too old to enjoy being outside. I recently was at the playground near our neighborhood and I got on a swing. I felt so amazing and light for a few minutes flying through the air and sensing the cool breeze on my skin. I didn’t care who was watching me act childlike because it made me feel so incredible. If I can do that in my forties, then your teen can do it, too. Every chance they get to feel free outdoors will help them thrive.