Is this the only bipartisan solution to the youth mental health crisis?
At the steepest portion of the upper Yosemite Falls Trail in Yosemite National Park, a class of fifth graders stood fearful, peering down from the dizzying rock face. They had climbed more than three miles up the trail but were nervous about the final stretch, where they would have to walk down a steep granite staircase to an overlook 2,500 feet above the valley.
Finally, one student volunteered to go first — a student with complete loss of sight. Under the watchful eyes of two experienced educators, he crossed the uneven terrain as his classmates observed in awe. Walking this path, he explained, with its variables and potential pitfalls, was what his life was like many days living blind. His example helped the rest of the group muster the courage to make it to the overlook.
This setting, with nature as an equalizer, created the opportunity for this revelation. When the students returned to school, their newfound understanding and appreciation of their blind classmate’s challenges contributed to altering the social dynamics of the classroom.
Yet, this type of meaningful and memorable connection was nearly impossible during the pandemic’s virtual learning days — one of the many pedagogical casualties of a year or more spent primarily on screens and indoors. Educators across the U.S. overwhelmingly believe their students have experienced “significant” learning loss. Many teachers share that their students are two years behind, particularly in their ability to be emotionally resilient and connect with other kids.
These are not conditions that call for a “return to normal,” as many have advocated. Prior to 2020, a mental health crisis was already underway among young people. That crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the aftershocks will reverberate through this generation unless we create a multipronged approach based on whole-child restoration.
That approach must include one of the only scientifically backed, equitable initiatives we’ve found with broad bipartisan appeal: immersive outdoor education.
The idea of getting outside to improve one’s state of mind is nothing new; “forest schools” have existed in the United States since 1927, and 75 percent of Americans count being outdoors among their more enjoyable pleasures in life. What is new is the growing mountain of evidence proving the efficacy of outdoor education programming.
Immersive outdoor education involves leaving the traditional school setting for several days and nights, connecting with fellow classmates and nature within the boundaries of a protected park, forest or other nature-rich landscape with the power to induce wonder. Challenging circumstances that may exist for students at home — food insecurity, distracting learning environments, and more — can be set aside while students participate in these programs. And whatever habits and relationships that have formed within the walls of their schools are disrupted by new patterns of engagement and visual tableaus.
There is a salve to be found in these immersive programs for many of the debilitating impacts on our youth from these past two years of virtual learning and isolation: A recent survey found that 43 percent of U.S. teenagers had experienced a panic or anxiety attack in the last year, and 22 percent had missed at least three days of school due to mental health issues. One effect of simply spending time in nature is a short-term boost in the ability to overcome stress, while viewing beautiful natural landscapes has been shown to provide calm and other mental health benefits. While the long-term effects are still being studied, studies suggest early exposure to nature yields persistent mental health benefits.
Virtual learning has also taken a toll on students, with 51 percent feeling overwhelmed by the format. Many of us yearned for more physical interaction and in-person connection over the past two years, and that lack of connection has been even more pronounced in young adults: a crucial stage of social development has been delayed. Excessive screen time has been shown to reduce attention span and delay cognitive development, as well.
In thoughtfully designed immersive outdoor education, screen time is limited or eliminated, putting the focus on students’ interaction with each other and the natural environment, creating a sense of place or relationship with their surroundings. These tenets of social-emotional learning reduce distress, increase confidence, teach empathy and even improve academic performance among students. Combined with the restorative properties of focused time in outdoor settings, these social-emotional learning aspects can help students recover from information-processing fatigue and improve their attention span.
Many policies aimed at supporting schools and young people are bogged down in political disagreement, but immersive outdoor education holds mass appeal: Over 80 percent of Americans believe conserving natural resources is patriotic, 74 percent believe the country should “do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” and 90 percent see their state’s parks and wildlife areas as playing a pivotal role in their quality of life.
In 2022, bills funding outdoor education in New Mexico and Washington passed with resounding majorities, including a 92-6 vote for Washington’s House Bill 2078, which provided grant funding for public schools and tribes to develop or expand outdoor educational experiences by working with state agencies and existing outdoor school programs.
We must follow Washington and New Mexico’s lead. The cost of these outdoor education programs would be far outweighed by the benefits. Creating, expanding and funding immersive outdoor education may be one of the only bipartisan solutions to the youth mental health crisis. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), along with Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), are onto something with legislation introduced in April. Whether at the state or federal level, now is the time to act boldly.
Nature can be the great healer and equalizer, so long as we ensure everyone can experience it.
Nicole Ardoin is an associate professor in the Doerr School of Sustainability and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.
Phillip Kilbridge is the CEO of NatureBridge, a nonprofit that provides immersive outdoor education programming for young people in U.S. national parks.