Coming out of the pandemic, many people are feeling isolated and disconnected. The feeling of being alone causes stress and anxiety and is detrimental to mental health. I am seeing this daily in the teenage students in the high school I work in. The past three years have been especially hard on high school students. Educators and parents must acknowledge the hardships and losses they have experienced and be willing to try something new to support them. One way to help teens feel more connected to themselves and others is to get them off screens and outside learning in nature.
Forest and nature schools have long been popular in Europe for young children. These principles of learning through play, movement, and exploration in nature can also be beneficial for teens. Research shows that spending time in nature decreases anxiety and depression and boosts mental health in all age groups.
Spending time in nature helps support teenagers’ natural Circadian rhythm that has been derailed by traditional school schedules and demands. Studies show that the majority of teenagers are sleep deprived and are not getting the recommended nine and a quarter hours of sleep by the Health Department. Lack of sleep is one of the leading causes of mental health issues, even though it is rarely talked about. Sleep experts and authors of Generation Sleepless, Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, say teenagers should spend the first few hours of the day outside, moving in the sun. This helps wake them up and connects them to the natural cycle of the earth and their own bodies.
Teens have also become increasingly sedentary, especially when we were sheltering in place during the pandemic. Learning outdoors provides space and time to move. In traditional schools, very few students spend the morning hours moving and outside. Classrooms tend to not have enough natural light to keep a teen’s sleep cycle at bay, especially when school starts before 8:30am, the recommended start time for high school. Exercise outside helps teens sleep at night and helps boost mental health because of the endorphins released when moving. Nature school students do not have to overcome these barriers to movement because hiking, climbing, and being physically active are built into the school day. Plus, it is fun! Being outside, playing, building, and creating is much more enjoyable than sitting at a desk and this a step towards bringing the joy back to education.
Learning in nature cultivates leaders with an appreciation for the earth, and this is the ultimate goal. In nature schools, nature is the teacher and this helps students build a connection to something that is bigger than themselves. Feeling connected to the earth helps students with their own social emotional learning. In a natural setting, they can feel more connected to their bodies with their feet on the ground, and breathing fresh air, to build self awareness. We want our teens to feel grounded and connected to the earth because when they feel balanced they can begin to share their gifts outward and lead. Our earth is a finite resource that needs to be preserved. The more students we have connected to themselves and nature, the more leaders we will have making decisions that benefit the environment long term. Healthy humans are a win for the earth, and let’s follow our nature school students to lead the way.