When most people think of therapy, they imagine someone talking about their thoughts and feelings from a couch in a therapist’s office. Talk therapy can be very helpful for those with mental health challenges, but it is far from the only kind of therapy. In my experience, having teenagers be active in nature has been especially effective at unlocking long-buried emotions and reducing overall stress and anxiety.
Outdoor therapy can help teens with anxiety and depression by switching up their usual environment. Many teens are more open to therapy when it feels less like a doctor’s appointment and more like a hike, horseback ride, or ropes course. Camp SEK is an intensive therapeutic experience, but almost none of it feels like sitting in a therapist’s office. Instead, it feels like learning new skills, making new friends, and building confidence while enjoying God’s creation.
Many parents think of outdoor time as an antidote for screen time, and science suggests these parents are right: Researchers at Osaka University found that, though screen time may hinder a child’s life skills and communication abilities, time spent outdoors blunts these harmful effects. If your teen spends a lot of time staring at a phone or computer screen, outdoor time can be particularly important.
Being in nature also helps young people think creatively. Your teenager likely has a pattern of indoor spaces - their bedroom, their classroom, the family car - which they inhabit each day. Their thought patterns are built within these physical locations, but a new outdoor space is a blank slate for their mind. When teens are empowered to explore the world around them, they become empowered to explore their inner thoughts and feelings as well.
In my experience as a child and adolescent psychologist, many patients are willing to open up and heal from past traumas when they are engaged in an activity like planting seeds or caring for farm animals. At Camp SEK, participants learn responsibility and teamwork in the context of farmlife. On the farm, everyone has a role to play, and every member of the team is needed to make the farm run smoothly. Campers will build confidence through outdoor therapy and will gain a sense of calm from group worship, yoga, and mindfulness.
Simply spending time outdoors can be therapeutic in and of itself. Studies have shown that being in nature lowers people’s blood pressure, reduces their heart rates, and simply makes them feel better. The mind-body connection is real, and both the mind and the body benefit from time spent outdoors.
Nature also presents opportunities for kids and teens to take small calculated risks, like climbing a tree or exploring a new hiking path. These activities help kids develop problem-solving skills, think creatively, and get comfortable trying new things. Teenagers learn it is okay to try new things, even if they do not succeed the first time around.
Another benefit to outdoor time is that such time is usually spent doing physical activity. Mental and physical health are intimately connected. When the body is active, it releases chemicals called endorphins that lift one’s mood and brighten one’s spirits. Getting active outdoors can help reduce the symptoms of depression. For growing bodies and minds, regular physical activity is imperative.
There is a sense of peace that comes with existing in God’s creation. For children struggling to find that inner peace, outdoor therapy can accelerate their healing and growth.