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Improving child & adolescent mental health through outdoor programming

Kids in woods

Rates of mental health concerns for children and adolescents are high across the United States and potentially rising as, simultaneously, young people are spending less time outdoors than ever before. These trends are especially pronounced for children of color and low-income urban youth, who face multiple barriers to accessing nature and gaining treatment for mental health concerns. 

The land conservation community has a unique opportunity to help reverse these trends. Time spent in nature has been associated with improved psychological functioning, overall mental health, and connection to place for children, teenagers, and parents. Conserved lands, both publicly and privately held, can provide a supportive, welcoming, and safe space for children and adolescents to engage with nature and experience the mental health benefits it provides. Such engagement also holds the potential to increase the community-relevance of conserved lands, secure a broader population of stewards and donors, and assist in managing and protecting land in perpetuity. 

Based on the hypothesis that land trusts, land managers, and parks professionals could be partners in the effort to improve child and adolescent mental health in the United States, and more active participants in the growing nature-health movement, we surveyed existing outdoor programming, nature-health literature, and youth-mental-health experts to generate recommendations for the next generation of nature-health programming in America. 

This report reviews the state of pediatric mental-health in the US, considers what role nature-experiences can play, and provides a list of insights and recommendations gathered from interviews with leaders from existing programs. We end with a menu of potential pilot actions that organizations can take to begin offering nature-based programing for America’s youth aimed at bringing the mental health benefits of the outdoors to new, diverse audiences, who may need it now more than ever. 

Published October 2020

About the Authors

Author list

Jessica Lloyd

Forest Manager at Yale Forests
Master of Forestry 2020

Aaron Reuben

Ph.D. Candidate in Clinical Psychology at Duke University
Master of Environmental Management 2012

Download the Report File