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Ecotherapy for Mental Health

How a focus on nature is changing therapy for kids

Gina Rich

Published on: December 30, 2022

Young child hiking in the woods

“Join me on a dog walk,” I said to my kids one afternoon. They sighed as if I had suggested they spend the day memorizing the library’s card catalog system. But their moods lightened once we were outdoors. My children, ages 10 and 12, skipped and meandered, stopping to collect wildflowers and laughing as our dog chased tiny frogs between puddles.

We’ve long recognized that playing outside is good for kids, just as I did that day.

“Nature-deficit disorder,” a concept introduced by journalist and author Richard Louv in 2005, underscores the importance of access to green spaces. A growing number of studies indicate that exposure to nature benefits kids in different ways, such as by lowering stress and promoting better cognitive development.

Ecotherapy — also called nature therapy or green therapy — goes further by encouraging structured, purposeful interactions with nature to improve mental health. “You’re bringing an aspect of mindfulness and intentionality to being outdoors,” says Amy Lajiness, LCSW, an ecotherapist and psychotherapist in San Diego who counsels adolescents, adults and families.

Here’s what experts say about why ecotherapy works and how to introduce it to kids.

Nature as a co-therapist

There is no standard training or certification 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 caring for animals, tending a garden or participating in a wilderness program. Practitioners often incorporate ecotherapy into conventional talk therapy by holding sessions outdoors and letting nature serve as a co-therapist.

This flexibility in choosing a natural environment is a key benefit of ecotherapy, because in-office settings can feel intimidating, especially to kids. There’s a power differential between clinicians and clients, Lajiness says, so children attending therapy may feel as if “I’m the patient. There’s something wrong with me.” By contrast, when sessions take place in a park or while strolling along a beach, “the setting is just so helpful to create a sense of comfort and openness.”

Lajiness says demand for mental health services has increased over the past couple of years in response to the pandemic, with the stress of online school and the curtailment of regular activities hitting tweens and teens particularly hard. She has noticed a big uptick in anxiety and attention disorders among older elementary school and younger middle school students.

Ecotherapy can help with these challenges. Exposure to nature tends to soothe and refresh overstimulated brains. While concrete tasks such as completing an assignment or writing an email require sustained, focused concentration, actions such as looking at a flower or listening to a thunderstorm cause us to engage in something called “soft fascination,” Lajiness says. “There isn’t necessarily the structure or the demand on our attention in a way that’s draining.”

Ecotherapy activities often start out as human-focused — or Level 1 ecotherapy, according to Linda Buzzell, a Santa Barbara, California, ecotherapist, psychotherapist and editor of the book “Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind.” Examples include playing in a garden or petting a friendly animal. Ideally, “as we engage with the rest of nature, we also begin to get the message that we need to pay attention to the health of Mother Nature as well as our own,” says Buzzell. This helps kids move to Level 2 ecotherapy, in which they actively care for nature, perhaps by tending a garden with an eye toward sustainability.

Due to extreme weather events fueled by climate change, many kids are feeling anxiety and sadness about how the world is changing. Ecotherapy can help, both from a psychological and practical standpoint. “We have to prepare kids to live and survive and do well in a world that doesn’t even exist yet, but that is rapidly coming,” says Buzzell.

Buzzell cheered when I told her about my family’s attempts to grow tomatoes in our backyard. Learning simple survival skills, such as growing your own food, is an important aspect of ecotherapy, she says. “It gives kids a sense of empowerment.”

Interested in exploring ecotherapy with children? Here’s what experts suggest.

How to start

Identify your kids’ preferred connection to nature. Part of an ecotherapist’s job is learning how each person relates best to nature. “It’s not one size fits all,” Buzzell says. Although some children love playing outdoors, others enjoy creating nature art or listening to the rain. My youngest child isn’t a big fan of nature walks, but she loves turtles, so animals are her gateway to nature.

Use what is nearby.

Green space may not be easily accessible where you live. But kids don’t need to be sitting in a forest to connect with nature. Activities such as tending to a houseplant or caring for a pet fish offer their own benefits in emotional regulation, Lajiness says. Even a cut flower can offer a way to interact and observe nature.

Show kids how tech can bring them closer to nature.

Vernon Hutter, an ecotherapist based in Devon, England, noticed how devices distracted kids from the natural world, so he encouraged his teenage daughter to use her smartphone mindfully by snapping photos of nature each day and sending them to him. Hutter recommends taking contrasting photos — first something big, such as clouds or a sunset; then something small, such as an insect. This intentionality helps foster awareness of the present moment.

Try nature-specific meditation.

Sandi Schwartz, author of the book “Finding Ecohappiness: Fun Nature Activities to Help Your Kids Feel Happier and Calmer,” suggests compassion meditation, during which children direct kind thoughts toward themselves and different aspects of nature. For those who struggle to sit quietly during traditional meditation, Lajiness likes to use the “five senses” grounding technique, or “5-4-3-2-1,” where she asks kids to name five parts of nature they can see, four they can feel, three they can hear, two they can smell and one they can taste or that they’re grateful for.

Use metaphors to help kids 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 feeling angry like a roaring lion? Powerful like a soaring eagle? Ask your child how these animals change as their feelings ease or get stronger. Or use seasons to describe emotions. “For example, we can talk about feeling cold and dark like during wintertime,” says Schwartz.

Encourage actions that bolster connections to nature.

If your children love pandas or turtles, for instance, they might consider donating part of their allowance to a charity that helps animals. After researching organizations that care for turtles, 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 interconnected — a realization that can be both healing and motivating. As Hutter puts it, “We’re a part of nature, not apart from nature.”

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