A little nature can boost teens’ pandemic well-being

"Kids who were able to continue participating in outdoor play and nature-based activities had subjective well-being levels that were similar to what they were before the pandemic, but kids who weren't able to participate saw much greater declines," Brent Jackson says. (Credit: Getty Images)

Outdoor play and nature-based activities can help buffer some of the negative mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for adolescents, according to a new study.

Researchers say the findings point to outdoor play and nature-based activities as a tool to help teenagers cope with major stressors like the pandemic, as well as future natural disasters and other global stressors. They also underscore the mental health implications of restricting outdoor recreation opportunities for adolescents, and the need to increase access to the outdoors.

“Families should be encouraged that building patterns in outdoor recreation can give kids tools to weather the storms to come,” says Kathryn Stevenson, assistant professor of parks, recreation, and tourism management at North Carolina State University and coauthor of the paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

“Things happen in life, and getting kids outside regularly is an easy way to build some mental resilience,” Stevenson says.

In a survey, conducted from April 30 to June 15, 2020, the researchers asked 624 children and teenagers between the ages of 10 to 18 years to report their participation in outdoor recreation both before the pandemic and after social distancing measures went into effect across the United States. They also asked participants about their subjective well-being, a measure of happiness, and mental health.

The findings reveal the pandemic had an impact on the well-being of many teens in the survey, with nearly 52% reporting declines in subjective well-being. The researchers also saw declines in teens’ ability to get outside, with 64% reporting their outdoor activity participation fell during the early months of the pandemic.

Despite these declines in outdoor activity participation, nearly 77% of teens surveyed believed that spending time outside helped them deal with stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know that a lot of outdoor activities that kids engage in happen during school, in youth sports leagues or clubs, and those things got put on hold during the pandemic,” says lead author Brent Jackson, a graduate student in the Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Program. “Based on our study, they were getting outside less—we think not being in school and having those activities really contributed to that.”

Benefits across the board

When they broke down recreation by type, the researchers saw participation in outdoor play activities such as sports, biking, going for walks, runs, or skating declined by 41.6%; nature-based activities such as camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, and paddling dropped by 39.7%; and outdoor family activities declined by 28.6%. In those early months of the pandemic, about 60% of teens say they spent time outside once a week or less.

“We saw declines in all three types of outdoor recreation participation,” Jackson says. “Nature-based activities had the lowest participation before and during the pandemic, which may point to the need for more access to natural spaces in general.”

The results show a link between well-being and outdoor recreation trends. They also show that the negative impacts of the pandemic affected teens’ well-being and participation in outdoor recreation regardless of race, gender, age, income community type, or geographic region.

Kids who did not get outside as much saw declines in well-being, but those who got outside both before and during the pandemic maintained higher levels of well-being.

“This tells us that outdoor recreation can promote well-being for kids when it happens, and can potentially take away from well-being when it doesn’t,” Stevenson says.

Outdoor play can do a world of good

Teens who had high rates of outdoor play before the pandemic were more resistant to negative changes in social well-being. Those who got outside frequently before the pandemic were more likely to experience a lesser decline in well-being, regardless of participation during the pandemic. And, for teens able to play outside or get involved in nature-based activities during the pandemic, their well-being was on par with pre-pandemic levels.

“Kids who were able to continue participating in outdoor play and nature-based activities had subjective well-being levels that were similar to what they were before the pandemic, but kids who weren’t able to participate saw much greater declines,” Jackson says.

The study’s findings also point to strategies to help kids navigate future global stressor events, as well as the importance of ensuring access to outdoor recreation. They help define the risks associated with policies that reduce kids’ ability get outside.

“Going outside and participating in activities that provide exposure to nature, physical activity, and safe social interaction during the pandemic were really powerful in terms of improving kids’ resilience,” Jackson says.

Source: NC State