Time Outside Builds Resilience in Youth Mental Health

girl with braces in the park

It’s clear by now that the pandemic is having a negative effect on our collective mental health, especially among young people. You can check out our February blog post to learn more about those trends. Adolescents are among the most vulnerable to these mental health impacts because the pandemic amplifies existing stressors during a period already filled with change and transition in young people’s lives. Fortunately, declines in mental health among adolescents are not inevitable.

girl with soccer ball

Researchers from North Carolina State University have found new evidence to support the importance of time outside in promoting youth mental health. In their study, researchers surveyed over 600 young people between the ages of 10 and 18. Over half of the respondents reported negative trends in their subjective wellbeing and almost 65% reported a decrease in outdoor activity participation since the start of the pandemic. However, the adolescents who continued to spend a lot of time outside, even after the pandemic began, were buffered from negative mental health effects. Researchers believe this points to high levels of outdoor activity participation as a critical factor in coping with strains on mental health among young people. Perhaps even more importantly, youth agree. About 77% of the adolescents surveyed said that time outside is an important way they cope with new stressors introduced by COVID-19.

teen boy and dad working on a bike in backyard

Two types of outdoor activities that were especially helpful in maintaining good mental health among youth in this study were outdoor play and nature-based activities. Outdoor play could include anything from playing sports to going for a walk or a bike ride. Nature-based activities include things like hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing. Despite its powerful effects, nature-based recreation had the lowest level of participation among youth in the survey during the pandemic. Brent Jackson, the lead researcher, thinks this may be because activities like camping and fishing often require some travel, which was restricted during the early part of the pandemic when this study was conducted. Conversely, outdoor play is easier to participate in at a very localized level through neighborhood walks or backyard sports. These findings point to a need for increased access to local natural spaces so youth can gain the myriad mental and physical health benefits of time outside through multiple kinds of activities.

girl in helmet leaning on her bike in a park

While the declines in youth mental health that this study reports are undoubtedly alarming, the solutions these results point to are promising. Young people are struggling, but their resilience is bolstered by time outside. As we collectively work towards pandemic recovery, the more we invest in access to nature and outdoor activities for youth, the healthier and more resilient they will be.