Nature and Physical Activity: Antidotes to Anxiety

by Chris Mays
Anyone with a teen at home has probably worried about how today’s young adults are affected by the stress of modern life. The rise in anxiety levels of students in their teens and early twenties has grown to an alarming level. Leading research confirms that the number of teens experiencing unhealthy levels of anxiety in modern America is estimated to be five times the rate it was in the 1930s, a time of high anxiety for our country. We have much work to do to interrupt this pattern.

While many teens are able to process daily stress effectively, for some, the stress lingers and builds. Pervasive anxiety can be debilitating, often leads to depression, and creates avoidant behaviors, which further stress family systems, promoting even higher levels of anxiety. Students who struggle with anxiety often seek escape from the uneasiness of social, environmental, and academic stressors by avoiding situations and retreating to their rooms or home, appearing to be unmotivated or uninterested in the larger world. Many opportunities are lost for expanding their perspectives and life options.

Why is this happening? Several key factors contribute to this trend. They range from an overabundance of choices, social media influences, suspect diets, lack of physical activity, and a shift from intrinsic goals to extrinsic goals. Neurological changes take place as a result, and some of these changes are not for the better. Those of us working with high-schoolers level know how important it is for students to achieve self-regulation and engage regularly with the larger world. It is important to first understand these issues and then take effective action through a coordinated plan that actively involves the student in the solution.

So, what can we do? The discovery of physical activity in aiding depression and anxiety is well known and has been monumental in helping those who are suffering. Spending time outside has also been linked to positive effects on the human psyche. Walking, hiking, biking, skateboarding, horseback riding, swimming, running, and any other active way to enjoy the outdoors has myriad benefits. As Richard Louv (2005) worded it, “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.” Engaging students in outdoor physical activity is a powerful way to address anxiety and other mental health issues.
There are many possible kinds of outdoor activity that can help students cope with anxiety and other challenges. One form of physical activity that has proven successful in healing and transformation as a therapeutic sport is surfing.

Surfing can promote physical well-being, combat discrimination, build confidence and a sense of security, as well as play an important role in the healing and rehabilitation process for all children affected by crisis, discrimination, and marginalization…programs with organized and supervised activities can offer important opportunities for leadership development, discipline, teamwork, and personal and professional growth” (Lopes, 2013)

Connecting students with the natural world through hard physical exercise challenges them physically and mentally in a way that can be life-changing. In fact, there are many programs for youth that focus on spending time outdoors because simply being outside in nature has a therapeutic effect.

Some students benefit greatly from a residential, outdoor-challenge-based program. Such programs can offer students a supportive environment for their emotional and physical needs while also providing an appropriately flexible educational program. One such program is the Point School in Puerto Rico, which provides an Oak Meadow education as part of their program for high-schoolers.

All students can benefit from the opportunity to learn while engaging in their natural environment, challenging themselves physically, and receiving support from encouraging adults. Incorporating regular physical activity and outdoor time can help every individual, regardless of age or circumstance, lead a happier, healthier life.  

Chris Mays is the CEO of The Point School, a residential community in Puerto Rico for young adults who need support and guidance to assist them in graduating high school and/or preparing for college. Chris has worked for over 30 years as an employee and manager of adventure-based youth development and treatment programs including sail training ships, Outward Bound programs, and private centers.

Learning and the Natural World

“Learning and the Natural World”
excerpted from The Heart of Learning by Lawrence Williams, EdD

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.  ~ John Lubbock

There is something very magical about being outside.
When I was young, a child’s connection to the natural world was not something that needed special attention. It was…well, natural. Kids played outside all the live-long day, as much as possible, in all kinds of weather. Then came the TV generation of the 1960s and 70s, and parents were often reminding kids to “Go outside and play!” Being outside was still an integral part of growing up for most children, however, even urban dwellers.
As a child, when you were outside, your curiosity ruled your actions. Your play was self-directed and engaged. Playing outside meant using all your senses. It probably meant meeting up with your friends and running around. It meant using your imagination and, hopefully, getting really dirty.
Nature’s Classroom
The lessons that nature has to teach us are never ending. Being immersed in the natural flow of plant and animal life cycles, weather patterns, seasons, and the intricate dance connecting everything helps us find our own balance in the flow of life. It’s not surprising that children who play outside are healthier mentally, emotionally, and physically. Human beings have spent nearly the entirety of our existence outside. Our connection to the natural world is so profound that when we are deprived of it, it’s no surprise that we don’t fare so well.
Getting Back to Nature, Plain and Simple
If your child hasn’t spent much time outdoors, be prepared to start small. The crack in the sidewalk is always a good place to start. Collecting sticks and building a little teepee is another simple way to get a child who is timid outdoors to start getting his hands dirty. Collecting rocks, shells, nuts, or just about anything will appeal to most children, and it’s just a small step from there to building and decorating a tiny, magical fairy house or woodland dwelling.
Here are a few more tips for bringing the outdoors into your day:

  • Go outside early in the day.
  • Eat snacks or meals outside.
  • Devote a section of your yard to dirt or sand play.
  • Plant a bean teepee large enough to play inside.
  • Make a living fort by trimming the bottom branches from bushes enough to make a crawl space.
  • Make a row or circle of stumps (burying them in the ground partway makes them more stable).
  • Make a mud pit.
  • Create sculptures from natural materials.

Here’s a list of great materials to collect or make available:

  • rocks
  • dirt or sand pile
  • branches, sticks, and logs
  • seeds and seed pods
  • pinecones and nuts
  • leaves and bark
  • driftwood, shells, and seaweed
  • flowers and long stalks of grass
  • feathers

Child-Led Discovery
Sometimes it is tempting to become a bit too involved in a child’s outdoor play. There is something irresistibly appealing about a sand pile or a fairy house. However, just as it was important not to let our own creative process take precedence over our child’s, it is important to allow children the time and space to explore on their own. This self-directed, unstructured play often yields the richest rewards. Be mindful of your child’s process instead of trying to guide it in one direction of another. Let children make their own discoveries, and allow them to make their own mistakes. Just because they aren’t doing something in the most efficient manner doesn’t mean it’s not right. We all learn from experience, and faster is not always better.
The most encouraging thing you can do is express interest in your child’s play without intruding. Be available to show genuine awe or intrigue when a new discovery or creation is shared with you, but refrain from questioning, judging, critiquing, or praising. Even praise can change a child’s play — the focus may shift to doing things that will please you rather than letting the play evolve organically from the child’s creative impulse. Outdoor play has a naturally expansive element, and the use of praise to help maintain creative tension (as we talked about in the last chapter) is not necessary.
Be playful and curious, be interested and excited, but above all, respect the rich inner life of the child’s play. There is something very peaceful about creating a nature scene or just exploring the natural environment. Don’t force the conversation. Sometimes it isn’t possible or helpful to talk about a creative experience. Connecting with nature can be a very personal experience, and one that builds intricate and complex ways of understanding the world. By attuning to your child’s attitude, you will probably be able to easily feel when it is right to just let things be.
While educators (homeschooling parents and professionals alike) are perpetually open to the teachable moment, unstructured outdoor play is often a good time to let the teachable moment pass without comment. Trust that the learning process is in full sail without your guidance. There will be another time to give suggestions, instructions, information, and to ask leading questions. For now, just enjoy the beauty of nature’s classroom.