Exposure to nature beneficial for kids with mental health issues, study finds

An adult and a child walking in a forest.

New research confirms what many already knew: Going outside and getting fresh air can make us feel better. A study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that for kids, especially those with mental health challenges, being immersed in nature resulted in measurable improvements in their health and well-being. Conducted in 2019, the study was published in November 2023 in the International Journal of Mental Health Promotion.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse found that when 12 participants between the ages of 9 and 14 took two one-hour half-mile guided walks in forest settings, their levels of tension, anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion decreased.

“The results demonstrate substantial psychological and physiological health and well-being outcomes of structured forest therapy for similar individuals,” according to the study, which also found an improvement in participants’ concentration as well as decreases in blood pressure after walking.

“Individuals of all ages, particularly children and adolescents, are encouraged to get used to engaging in the slow mindful nature immersion experiences at their early life stages, if possible, which could potentially benefit their health and well-being as their development progresses,” Namyun Kil, co-author of the study, told the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse blog Currents.

Originating in Japan in the 1980s, forest bathing or forest therapy is defined by the Global Wellness Institute as follows: “Not simply a walk in the woods, it is the conscious and contemplative practice of being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest.”

Forest bathing can be experienced in short walks of 10 to 30 minutes or in guided meditative walks of two to three hours.

Author and immunologist Dr. Qing Li is the president of the Society of Forest Medicine in Japan. An expert in forest bathing, Li said in a video posted by Penguin Books thatpracticing just two hours of forest bathing can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels, lift depression, improve sleep,  concentration, and memory, and boost the immune system.

Kil is researching whether time spent in nature can help military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Parents of children are encouraged to spend more time immersing themselves in nature with their children. Grandparents who know about forest bathing can do the same thing with their grandchildren – Intergenerational learning experiences,” Kil told Currents.