I have a confession; the nature world absolutely amazes me! I can sit and watch a 12 inch by 12 inch square of earth and see a whole universe! The sunsets. The sunrises. The vivid colors of flowers and butterflies. The way the mist dials back all the colors and the way the rising sun then burns it off, transforming the landscape into a vivid painting. A rainbow. A flower appearing magically in my yard that I did not plant. The way an owl hoots at what seems like the exact moment I needed to hear it, somehow validating or confirming a thought or a decision I was struggling to make. It all amazes me. This connection to nature takes me from my busy monkey brain of to-do lists, worries, criticisms, cynicism, and overactivity to a place of profound presence and stillness. That is powerful stuff my friends!
Connection to Nature Improves Cognitive Function
Our connection to the natural world is not only meant to be an enjoyable hobby. It is actually quite critical to our health and well-being. In fact, science can now tell exactly why we feel so much better after we spend time in nature.
David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist with the University of Utah, has studied the effects of nature on performance and brain function. “Motivated by large-scale public health problems such as obesity, depression, and pervasive nearsightedness, all clearly associated with time spent indoors, Strayer and other scientists are looking with renewed interest at how nature affects our brains and bodies.” (Williams, 2016) His research has shown that being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains that regulates complex cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning, to rest, much like an overused muscle (Williams, 2016).
Time in Nature Reduces Stress
In Japan, several studies clearly demonstrate a reduction of stress by spending time in the woods. Research led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University, studied 84 participants who were sent to stroll in seven different forests for approximately 15 minutes, while the same number of participants walked around urban cities. The participants who walked in the forest experienced a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate (Park, Tsunetsugu, Kasetani, Kagawa, Miyazaki. 2010). In fact, in Japan they have a term for this called “Shinrin-yoku”, or taking in the atmosphere of a forest, and have gone as far to rate each forest for the amount of positive energy you can expect by strolling through it.
Natural Mood Enhancer
In Finland, the government funded research which asked thousands of people to rate their moods and stress levels after visiting both natural and urban areas. Their findings indicate that even short visits to urban nature areas have a positive influence on mood, and lower cortisol levels resulting in a formal recommendation that people get a minimum dose of nature (about five hours per month) to ward off the blues. (Tyrväinen, Ojala, Korpela, Lanki, Tsunetsugu, & Kagawa. 2014)
How can you encourage your teen to spend more time outdoors?
Encourage them to go outside every day! It doesn't matter if it’s your backyard, a nearby park, a little car ride to a forest nearby, a trip up to the lake or nearby river, or a whole weekend as a family camping in the remote woods. Just get them outside. Even just 20 minutes with some direct sunlight everyday improves Vitamin D levels and mood!
Encourage them to join outdoor activities like a rock climbing club, hike trails with friends, mountain bike in the Metro Parks, snowshoeing, downhill or cross country skiing clubs, archery classes, or anything they might be naturally drawn to do. Consider going bigger with programs like Outward Bound or Coyote Trails in the summer!
Most importantly, model the behavior and invite them along! The benefits of time spent in nature are just as powerful for adults! By reconnecting to nature yourself you will not only reap the same rewards you may also foster deeper connections with your teen discovering new adventures and activities together!
Jody R. Pittner, LPC, ATR
P.S Grab your Free Nature Effect Worksheet to help you talk with your teen about the importance of getting outside! It even includes local area resources! Just pop in your email address for instant access.