Please join me in saving our kids. Let’s take them to the woods and let them connect with nature.
Our daughter struggles with severe anxiety issues and other mental health challenges. From a very young age, she was driven to spend extended periods of time outdoors. We have learned that when she gets agitated or argumentative or teary, it’s time to send her outside, no matter what the weather is like. It even helps her think more clearly. Others sometimes question how we could allow our daughter to be outside in pouring rain, or in a snowstorm, or on a crisp, cold night. We know that’s the wrong question. The real question for our family is how could we ever imprison her inside? All of our children spent the majority of their growing up years being homeschooled. Each one spent some time in public or private school settings, with mixed success. This youngest daughter tried valiantly to survive 6th and 7th grade in the local school. She was even granted an accommodation to be allowed to step outside with an aide or a counselor if she really needed it. But that just wasn’t enough. She melted down numerous times per day, overwhelmed by classroom chaos and expectations, fleeing to the quiet of the office. Obviously, academic progress is difficult when the student is never in class! We brought Daughter back home for school last fall…and she and I spent 6 weeks backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. (I’ve written other posts about homeschooling on the trail HERE and HERE.)
Counter to prevailing wisdom, Daughter and I did not take overnight backpacking trips prior to leaving on our adventure. I was afraid that if she was uncomfortable or became anxious about the trip, she would melt down and refuse to give it a try. It seemed to be a better option for us to do some outdoors walking in local parks, then get to the AT and hike “for real.” I knew hubby would come rescue us if needed, although we didn’t mention that to daughter. She focused on the itinerary for each day and made the decisions of when to stop for snacks and lunch. Having that level of control was helpful for her staying motivated to keep hiking.
After debilitating anxiety attacks 2-3 times per day during the school year, and 2-3 times per week during the freedom of summer, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect while we were backpacking. I was amazed that during our time on the trail, Daughter was generally calm, even-tempered and cheerful. She took pride in being equal to adults in skill, performing camp chores, and taking responsibility for herself. Yes, she had some grumpy, exhausted, teary moments…but so did I! In the 6+ weeks we were hiking, she only had one (count ‘em, ONE) anxiety attack. And after a stop for water, a snack, and belting out a favorite song, she was able to calm herself back down. The only time she struggled with maintaining her composure was when we were in the chaos of towns for resupply. We KNOW time outdoors is both helpful and healing for our daughter. She thinks more clearly and can focus more effectively on current tasks when she is in nature. We joke that we need to find a cabin in the woods to move to…even though that isn’t really feasible right now. So, she and I try to regularly walk in nearby parks, she spends hours on her scooter, and we are starting to count down the time til we head back to the Appalachian Trail for another long distance hike late this spring.
This winter, I was fascinated to discover that there is an entire branch of science focused on this link between nature and human well-being, called “eco-psychology” or “eco-therapy.” Here are a few links to interesting articles about the benefits of hiking, being in nature, and connecting children to nature:
If you would like to read an entire book on this topic, this one is a classic: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. It is available on Amazon HERE.