Nature Can Boost Positive Youth Development

three young kids on a playground

Positive youth development (PYD) is a key aspect of many youth recreation programs. While PYD sounds like industry jargon, it is simply an approach to engaging with young people that works towards positive life outcomes through relationship-building and community-based support systems. PYD approaches recognize that the physical and social environments that surround our youth have a huge impact on their ability to be healthy and achieve their goals. In other words, positive youth development occurs when we’re able to foster positive relationships, create opportunities for positive experiences, and invest in positive environments.

little boy on a bike

While PYD is not a new concept in the world of youth recreation, there is new research recognizing the role of nature in the process. In the summer of 2021 several researchers published a paper with evidence to support the idea that spending time outside and feeling connected to nature can help lead to PYD outcomes. This study describes nature as an ecological asset that needs to be brought into the conversation about creating positive environments for youth.

a man and boy play soccer in a park

There are two main implications for these findings. One is that any youth-focused programs that spend time in the outdoors but aren’t already using PYD frameworks to think about outcomes for their participants should consider holistic PYD approaches as part of their strategy. Conversely, youth programs that are already focused on PYD should work to integrate time outside and nature-based play into what they do. It could be that moving activities into the outdoors could boost PYD outcomes simply because of the positive environment natural spaces create for development and learning.

a child sits on a bench with autumn leaves

Of course, the outdoors looks different in different places. The immediate environment varies based on urban, rural, and suburban geographies and spending time outside can be difficult in areas plagued by hazards driven by climate change like storms, floods, and wildfires. On the one hand, this highlights an urgent need for environmental justice work that increases access to local greenspace, and on the other it asks us to redefine what we consider to be “the outdoors.” Youth programs that engage with the nearby nature that finds its way into schoolyards and sidewalks are gaining steam across the U.S. The research presented in the study of nature as an ecological asset suggests that time outside doesn’t have to take place in national parks or wilderness areas to boost PYD. Instead, connecting with local outdoor environments was an effective strategy for engaging participants in the study in positive recreational experiences.

a little girl enjoys the park

Positive youth development outcomes are based on a range of factors, and there’s no one silver bullet when it comes to helping young people succeed. Going outside won’t remove all the barriers youth face in pursuing long-term success and health. It does seem, however, that time in natural spaces is an important element of PYD in a network of other factors like family dynamics, school environments, and opportunities for meaningful recreation.