We have known for a long time that playing outside is good for children, just like I did back then.
“Nature Deficit Disorder,” a term introduced in 2005 by journalist and author Richard Louv, underscores the importance of access to green space. A growing body of research shows that exposure to nature benefits children in a number of ways, such as: B. by reducing stress and promoting better cognitive development.
Ecotherapy — also known as nature therapy or green therapy — goes further by promoting structured, purposeful interactions with nature to improve mental health. “They bring an aspect of mindfulness and intentionality to nature,” says Amy Lajiness, an ecotherapist and psychotherapist in San Diego who counsels youth, adults, and families.
Here’s what experts say about why ecotherapy works and how to introduce it to children.
No standard training or certification is required to become an ecotherapist, but many practitioners are mental health professionals who have completed additional work in nature therapy. Ecotherapy is a broad term for a range of activities such as B. caring for animals, tending a garden or participating in a wilderness program. Practitioners often integrate ecotherapy with conventional talk therapy, holding sessions outdoors and letting nature serve as a co-therapist.
This flexibility in setting is a key benefit of ecotherapy, as office environments can feel intimidating — especially for children. There’s a power imbalance between doctors and patients, says Lajiness, so children entering therapy may feel like “I’m the patient. There’s something wrong with me.” On the other hand, when the sessions are in a park or on a walk along the beach, “the environment is just so helpful in creating a sense of comfort and openness.”
“Llama Therapy” in the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park
According to Lajiness, demand for mental health services has increased this year in response to the pandemic, with the stress of online school and restrictions on regular activities hitting tweens particularly hard. She has noticed a sharp rise in anxiety and attention deficit disorders in older elementary school students and younger middle school students.
Ecotherapy can help with these challenges. Contact with nature tends to calm and refresh overstimulated brains. While specific tasks like completing a task or writing an email require sustained, focused concentration, actions like looking at a flower or hearing a thunderstorm lead us to engage in something called “gentle fascination” says Lajiness. “It’s not necessarily the structure or the demand for our attention that drains us.”
Ecotherapy activities often begin as human-centered — or Level 1 ecotherapy, according to Linda Buzzell, an ecotherapist, psychotherapist, and co-editor from Santa Barbara, Calif., and co-editor of Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. Examples are playing in the garden or petting a friendly animal. “Ideally, when we engage with the rest of nature, we also get a message that we need to take care of Mother Nature’s health as well as our own,” says Buzzell. This helps us move on to stage 2 of ecotherapy where we actively care for nature, perhaps by caring for a garden with sustainability in mind.
After a summer of extreme weather fueled by climate change, many children are concerned and saddened by how the world is changing. Ecotherapy can help, both from a psychological and practical point of view. “We need to prepare children to live, survive, and thrive in a world that doesn’t exist yet but is coming fast,” says Buzzell.
Buzzell cheered when I told her about my family’s attempts to grow tomatoes in our backyard. Learning simple survival skills like growing your own food is an important aspect of ecotherapy, she says. “It gives the children a sense of self-determination.”
Interested in researching ecotherapy with children? Here’s what experts suggest.
Identify your children’s preferred connection to nature. Part of an ecotherapist’s job is learning how each person best interacts with nature. “It’s not one size fits all,” says Buzzell. Some kids love playing outside, others love creating art in nature or listening to the rain. My youngest child is not a big fan of nature walks but she loves turtles so animals are her gateway to nature.
Green spaces may not be easily accessible where you live. But kids don’t have to be in the woods to connect with nature. Activities like caring for a houseplant or tending a pet fish offer their own emotional regulatory benefits, Lajiness says. Even a cut flower can provide a way to interact with and observe nature.
Show children how technology can bring them closer to nature
Noting how devices distract children from the natural world, Vernon Hutter, an ecotherapist from Devon, England, encouraged his teenage daughter to use her smartphone mindfully by taking photos of nature every day and sending them to him. Hutter recommends taking high-contrast photos—first something big like clouds or a sunset, then something small like an insect. This intentionality helps promote present moment awareness.
Try nature-specific meditation
Sandi Schwartz, author of the forthcoming book Finding Ecohappiness: Fun Nature Activities to Help Your Kids Feel Happier and Calmer, suggests compassion meditation, in which children direct kind thoughts toward themselves and various aspects of nature. For those who have trouble sitting still during traditional meditation, Lajiness likes to use the “5 senses” or “5-4-3-2-1” grounding technique, where she asks the children to name five parts of nature that you can see. four you can feel, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste or be grateful for.
Use metaphors to help children open up
Kids may find it easier to express feelings through nature metaphors, which tend to be visual and vivid, Schwartz says. Is your child angry like a roaring lion? Powerful like a soaring eagle? Ask your child how these animals change when their feelings decrease or increase. Or use seasons to describe emotions. “We can say, for example, that we feel cold and dark like in winter,” says Schwartz.
Encourage actions that strengthen connections with nature
For example, if your kids love pandas or turtles, they might consider donating some of their pocket money to a charity that helps animals. After researching turtle caring organizations, my daughter made a gift to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Ultimately, the goal of ecotherapy is to help us understand that humans and nature are not separate, but deeply connected – a realization that can be both healing and motivating. As Hutter puts it, “We are a part of nature and not separate from nature.”
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