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Tell your kids to take a hike
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Summary for busy sapiens
There’s a large body of research on “nature exposure” (i.e, spending time in green spaces or wilderness).
Systematic reviews, including multiple randomized trials, suggest nature exposure is good for physical activity, cognitive functioning, and mental health.
Nature can help restore attention, reduce stress, and facilitate social connection—in both kids and adults.
Take small steps: a trip to the park or a walk outside can make a difference.
7 min read
When I was in my early 20s, I spent several summers working for a teen outdoor adventure company. Each summer, I’d pack up a backpack, say goodbye to my (very supportive) boyfriend-now-husband, and hop on a plane with 15 teenagers. I’d spend the next few months leading the group on, say, a trek through the Himalayas, or a safari in the savannas of Namibia, or, in one particularly cushy placement, a conservation project in Hanalei Bay, Kaua’i.
No offense, sapiens, but this remains the best job I’ve ever had.1
We’d camp out in tents, cook meals over a fire, and wake up to sunrises illuminating ocean, desert, or mountains. We’d swim in waterfalls, roll down sand dunes, and hike up snow-capped peaks. We spent so much time outside that a visit to the grocery store felt like stepping through a portal into a strange, fluorescent-lighted alternate universe.
Students almost invariably returned from those trips raving about them, shedding tears at leaving their new friends behind, marveling at everything they’d seen and experienced. I’d come home revived, relaxed, happy (if desperately relieved to take a hot shower).
I’ve often wondered what, exactly, was the magic behind those trips. Was it the atmosphere of fast-friendship only a summer camp can foster? The community service? The lack of screens, given that we collected students’ devices at the start of the trip?2
These factors likely played a role, but there was another component to these trips that I think played a critical role in their success—one that often gets lost in our academic debates about screen time and social media: nature.
Oh no. She’s going full David Attenborough on us.
Bear with me.3 We often think about time outside, enjoying our natural surroundings, as kind of a “nice to have.”4 Sure, it seems like it’s probably good for us and our kids, but it’s not like there’s any kind of science to prove it.
Turns out, there’s a robust body of literature investigating nature exposure (i.e., “green time.”) And by robust, I mean a truly shocking 296 studies identified in a 2021 Pediatrics review of “nature and children’s health,” which doesn’t even include the hundreds of studies focused on adults.
So, what does the research say?
Wait, how do you even do research on “nature”?
Generally, research on “nature exposure” tries to measure individuals’ contact with outdoor environments containing “natural elements” (e.g., grass, trees, plants), and to test how that relates to mental and physical health.
Sometimes, these studies use correlational methods. Researchers might ask how much time people spend in grassy areas, and/or use the “Normalized Difference Vegetation Index” (i.e., a measure of the density of green space in a given land area), and see how that correlates with their health.5
Obviously, there are major confounds here, the main one being socioeconomic status—low-income neighborhoods tend to have fewer parks and green space.
This is why experimental studies are important. These studies might, for example, randomly assign some schools to add grass and trees to their outdoor play space, and others to keep asphalt blacktops; or they might randomly assign some people to take walks in the woods, and others to take walks in the mall.
What does the research find?
In sum: nature is great!
More exposure to nature is associated with numerous positive health outcomes, including physical activity, behavioral health, cognitive functioning, and mental health.
For kids and teens, this is supported by hundreds of studies, summarized in a 2023 overview of 36 systematic reviews on the topic. For example, one review of six “schoolyard greening” interventions finds positive impacts on students’ activity and socio-emotional health, and another systematic review of nature exposure studies finds that, when it comes to emotional and behavioral health, all 5 RCTs identified point to positive outcomes (higher well-being, reduced stress, etc.).
Similar results show up in adults, too. For example, a 2022 meta-analysis suggests that “nature walks” (compared to walks in urban areas, for instance) may help to reduce symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.
Why is nature so great?
Sure, it feels great to be in nature, to head down south to the land of the pines, maybe pick a bouquet of dogwood flowers, or even become a fiddler in an old time string band (?)6…but why?
Researchers suggest three possible reasons:
Fewer stressors. When people are in nature, they tend to be exposed to fewer environmental stressors, like air pollution, noise, and excessive heat.
Helping us feel better. Exposure to nature can help us restore our attention (a possible factor in the benefits of ‘schoolyard greening’) and recover from stress (e.g., by lowering blood pressure and other physiological indicators). Hint: if you’re stressed, go for a walk outside for faster, more effective recovery.
Encouraging positive behaviors. Areas with more green space may encourage more physical activity, and could also facilitate social cohesion (i.e., through a neighborhood park).
Take a hike (or just, you know, go to the park)
There’s still a lot we don’t know. For example:
How much nature exposure is necessary to get the benefits?
Is there a difference between “intentional” exposure (i.e., choosing to go for a nature walk) versus “incidental” exposure (i.e., trees just happening to be there when you walk to school)?
Can we be sure that the effects of nature exposure are more than just a proxy for socioeconomic status? We have some solid evidence, but it’s tricky to truly disentangle.
How does screen time fit into all this? Only a few studies have examined both “green time” and “screen time” together, and findings are inconclusive. Logically, though, it’s safe to assume that time spent inside on a device is not also time spent outdoors in nature—so, if excessive screen time is displacing nature time, this is an issue.
Even with these unknowns, the research on nature is pretty convincing, and reminds us that we don’t necessarily need to go trekking in the Himalayas or galavanting around the beaches of Kaua’i to get the benefits (though that would be nice…).
Instead, we can take small steps. We can try to get our kids outside when possible,7 we can work to make green spaces more accessible, and we can remember to trade in our screens for a trip to the park once in awhile.
‘Til next time, sapiens! I’m heading out for a walk.
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In case you missed it
These trips were not without stress, of course. Being responsible for a large group of teenagers in a foreign country, combined with high altitudes and contaminated drinking water, is not the easiest feat. One particularly memorable instance involved a student become violently ill, fainting at the New Delhi airport, and, due to a formidable language barrier, me using my body as a shield to prevent the on-site airport medical staff from inserting an IV before I had a chance to call the student’s parents. The student was ultimately fine. I, on the other hand, may have taken a few years off my life.
It is, perhaps, no surprise that the experience of taking away students’ devices on these trips inspired me to spend my career studying this. What effect was constant access to devices having on teens? Was there really such power in putting them away for a few weeks? It’s a question (you’ve probably noticed) I’m still fascinated by, 12 years later.
Speaking of David Attenborough—broadcaster, natural historian, and (of course) narrator of the Planet Earth series—he appears to be 97 years old and thriving. Forget the research. This guy might be all the evidence we need that there’s something to this whole nature thing.
When I say “we” often think of time outside as just a “nice to have,” I’m, of course, using the royal “we.” I recognize that there are many people out there whose entire careers are focused on researching nature exposure, and none of this is surprising to them. If this is you: I apologize. Also, please take me on your next camping trip.
A couple other defining features of “nature exposure” research: (1) Word clouds. I came across as least three word clouds in various articles about nature exposure, including one shaped like a tree! Fun! (2) You get the sense that people doing this research are, themselves, pretty into nature. A lot of the research is coming out of places like Washington State University or, you know, Norway, which is both the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited and a place where some summer months involve a minimum of 18 hours of sunlight per day.
If you did not recognize these as lyrics to Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show (more recently covered by Darius Rucker), your early 20s may have involved fewer campfire sing-alongs than mine.
My son, so far, seems to be a big fan of nature—specifically, after one misheard exchange with his grandpa, he likes to clarify whenever we’re outside that there are lots of “Trees, NOT cheese.” Incidentally, he is also a big fan of cheese.