Nurturing through Nature: Eco-therapy for Children

by Melissa MacDougall

The year is 1985. It’s summer and I am seven years old. Like ancient seafarers, I tell time by the position of the sun and once it begins to fall behind the forested mountains, once the blue sky erupts into glorious shades of pink and purple, I know my adventure is over—until I rise the following morning, that is. Today, though, my best friend since preschool is expecting me. She promised to pack milk and peanut butter sandwiches while I snagged a handful of change from my piggybank for ice cream at the corner store.

We make the most of our day. We cruise the densely wooded trails behind our elementary school on the seats of our almost-matching pink BMXs, the tall grass tickling our calves. We stop to build a fort, pretending to be explorers to this new land, and we feast on plump salmon berries, only after the sandwiches are polished off. We watch long-legged spiders spin brilliant silky webs and we whisper to ladybugs to fly-away-home. This is our life, one filled with discovery and play among trees and flowers, bees, and birds.

The year is 2009. It’s summer and my daughter is seven years old. I can hear her fingers plunking hard against the keys of our desktop computer as she mindlessly plays a game on loop; the music, a cheery little ditty, implies this virtual world is as beautiful and as enjoyable as the reality that exists outside our front door. Her discovery is one that isn’t three dimensional, that doesn’t thrive and live, breathe and blossom, but instead is nothing more than wires and electricity. Her companion isn’t one that she’s had since preschool but one that plugs into a wall.

As a child, I remember receiving bicycles as presents on holidays and birthdays; now we give our children cellphones, laptops, and gaming systems. They are plugged-in the wrong way, to the wrong things, and we, as parents, have allowed this to become the norm. To some degree, nature has become unnatural, as though children don’t know how to behave in an environment that isn’t controlled by a touchscreen or a remote. In 2005, Richard Louv, explained in his book Last Child in the Woods that people, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, resulting in what he referred to as Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD, which is not recognized by the DSM-5 or any other medical manual). He coined the phrase, not to serve as an official diagnosis, but to aid in the comprehension of the effects of limited access to the natural world.

If we take a stroll down the hallways of any given school, we can see the escalation of childhood obesity and though we may not be able to tell the actual deterioration of their organs due to asthma and type II diabetes, we can recognize there is more going on than we realize. But, the fallout due to the lack of organic play doesn’t end with physical issues. Instead, it has led to an increase in childhood anxiety and depression. A report released this year by the Child Mind Institute stated 80 per cent of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 60 per cent of kids with diagnosable depression are not receiving treatment.

Though eco-therapy (also referred to as green therapy or earth-centered therapy, and defined as healing and growth by a healthy interaction with the earth), isn’t capable of resolving all cases of anxiety, ADHD, and depression, it certainly has merit as a therapeutic method. By reconnecting with nature, through planting or play, children suffering from these disorders find their distractions from a meaningful source rather than from one that is human-made. Studies linking natural environment to mental well-being show a continued relationship with nature can reduce feelings of sadness, increase positive emotions, and improve mental health. Eco-therapy has also been known to assist in issues relating to self-esteem, stress, aggression, autism, self-harm, and bereavement by refocusing attention in a positive and creative manner.

As parents, we need to lead by example. We need to teach our children that to play doesn’t mean to build virtual worlds, and that to connect doesn’t mean to like a photo on social media. By getting children outdoors, by redirecting their attention from flashing screens, we grant them the opportunity to realize the beauty of their natural surroundings and, in turn, we set them up for healthier, happier versions of themselves.

Melissa MacDougall, Writer. Mother. Wife. Lover of shoes, handbags, and bacon.