The benefits of nature therapy are powerful for teens. That’s why residential treatment centers for youth often feature Adventure Therapy and Horticulture Therapy in the great outdoors. Hence, teens experience the joy, fun, and positivity that come with nature connection.
Therefore, adolescent residential treatment centers that are on or near beautiful landscapes have the opportunity to supplement their residents’ treatment with nature therapy. For example, Newport Academy’s residential campus in California is near Muir Woods National Monument, well-known for stunning vistas and beautiful landscape.
The Muir Woods forest features majestic redwoods and scenic hiking trails. As a result, more than 1.5 million visitors travel to the site each year. In fact, Muir Woods National Monument is the only old-growth coastal redwood forest in the Bay Area. Furthermore, it is one of only a handful that remain anywhere on Earth. Hence, it is an idal site for nature therapy activities.
What Is Ecotherapy?
Ecotherapy is another name for nature therapy. Moreover, ecotherapy is sometimes referred to as green therapy. Mental health experts, including counselor Howard Clinebell and psychologist Theodore Roszak, developed this approach. Hence, ecotherapy applies the health benefits of nature to ease anxiety, stress, and depression. These nature-based interventions are sometimes combined with clinical modalities, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
A growing body of research validates that healing with nature works. For example, in , participants engaged in one of three activities. One group walked in an urban area. Another group walked in a nature preserve. And a third group sat quietly while listening to music or reading.
Subsequently, researchers assessed their mood. Therefore, they found that the participants who walked in the nature preserve reported less anger and more positive emotions than either of the other groups. Another study, conducted at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, found that taking a walk in nature reduced depression scores in 71 percent of participants.
How Trees Support Health and Nature Therapy
Spending time in the woods, such as in the Muir Woods forest, improves both mental and physical health. Japan was one of the first countries to recognize the health benefits of trees. In the 1980s, Japanese mental health experts prescribed a nature therapy called shinrin-yoku. This translates as forest bathing.
Forest bathing exposes us to a class of highly beneficial chemicals called phytoncides. And these chemicals have been shown to provide relaxation and reduce stress.
Moreover, they improve immune function by building the natural killer (NK) cells that fight disease.
To study forest bathing, researchers conducted experiments in 24 forests across Japan. On the first day at each location, six participants were sent to a forested area. Next, the others were sent to an urban environment. On the second day, each group was sent to the other area.
Subsequently, researchers measured participants’ cortisol, blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate variability. The study’s result showed the clear health benefits of nature. They found that forest environments, as compared to city environments, produced the following results:
- Lower concentrations of cortisol, a stress-related hormone
- Slower pulse rate
- Reduced blood pressure
- Greater activity of the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system
- Less activity in the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system.
Teen Treatment: The Role of Nature Therapy
Time outdoors is a vital ingredient for mental health. Hence, residential treatment centers for youth recognize the benefits of nature.
This is particularly important because children and teens are spending less time outside, according to a report by the nonprofit Outdoor Foundation. The fact that teens are underutilizing the health benefits of nature may be contributing to teen mental health challenges. Experts believe that lack of time outdoors may cause or promote anxiety, depression, ADHD, myopia, obesity, and other conditions.
However, ecotherapy is based on the idea that spending time in nature on a regular basis helps correct this deficit. As the studies mentioned above illustrate, research has repeatedly proven that time outdoors reduces levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.
Moreover, ecotherapy and unplugged experiences in nature, including hiking in beautiful spots like the Muir Woods trails, help counteract the effects of technology. Such experiences regulate mood, restore mental energy, and rebalance the nervous system.
Muir Woods National Monument: An American Treasure
Muir Woods National Park is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Furthermore, it is one of more than 400 national parks across the country. The Muir Woods Visitor Center offers history and information about the park.
Muir Woods National Monument is the first national monument created because of a land donation from an individual. Congressman William Kent donated the land to protect the redwoods from the logging industry boom.
Congressman Kent insisted that the park be named for John Muir. Also known as “John of the Mountains” and “Father of the National Parks,” John Muir was an American naturalist, author, scientist, and philosopher. In a sense, he was an early advocate of nature therapy.
Muir was born in Scotland in 1838. Subsequently, his family immigrated to America a decade later. Subsequently, Muir supported the preservation of wilderness in the United States. Hence, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Muir Woods National Monument in 1908 and dedicated it to John Muir. In addition, this forested site is also known as the John Muir National Monument or the Cathedral Grove of Muir Woods.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Outdoor Nature Therapy for Teens
Furthermore, many residential treatment centers for youth offer different forms of nature therapy. For example, Adventure Therapy is an experiential therapeutic approach that uses challenges in the outdoors as a tool for positive change. Hence, Adventure Therapy for adolescents might include rock climbing, paddle boarding, surfing, hiking, ropes courses, and kayaking.
Combined with clinical modalities—such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and EMDR—Adventure Therapy fosters sustainable growth and healing. This experiential modality is particularly helpful for teens who find traditional talk therapy difficult.
A study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies explored the efficacy of nature therapy in treating troubled adolescents. Researchers found that 95 percent of participants found the project to be enormously beneficial. In fact, six weeks after the program, parents reported significant improvements in the behavior and mindset of the teenagers who participated.
“With Adventure Therapy, kids also get the much-needed opportunity to be outside in the fresh air, near woods and water. Scientists have found that spending time in nature stimulates the nervous system’s relaxation response. Consequently, this leads to a slew of positive effects.”
—Tim Walsh, Director of Experiential Learning at Newport Academy
Being Outdoors Helps Teens Get Moving
Healing with nature involves being physically active—for example, hiking through Muir Woods National Monument. And that physical exercise has proven mental health benefits for youth.
In a study of a dozen young adults, participants with major depressive disorder exercised regularly. They exercised three times a week with a trainer and on their own the other days.
As a result, after 12 weeks of exercise, 10 of the participants were no longer categorized as depressed. Multiple studies have confirmed these results. Hence, nature therapy is enhanced by physical activity.
Therefore, exercise improves well-being and positive outlook by impacting serotonin levels. In addition, it can even be as effective as antidepressants. Hence, the findings prove that physical activity is an essential aspect of residential treatment centers for youth.
Nature Therapy and the Awesome Beauty of Nature
In addition, natural sites such as Muir Woods National Monument inspire awe in all of us, no matter our age. And that’s good for our mental health. Research has found that experiencing awe can encourage more positive feelings and generous social behaviors. This is an important aspect of nature therapy.
Today, the average age of the coastal redwoods in the Muir Woods National Park is between 600 and 800 years. Moreover, this is young for redwoods, as the trees can live up to 2,200 years. That’s pretty awesome!
To summarize, the most successful residential adolescent residential treatment centers provide opportunities for teens to get outdoors, get moving, and appreciate the awe-inspiring beauty of nature. As a result, teen mental health outcomes improve.
Images courtesy of unsplash
Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan;15(1):9–17, 18–26, 27-37.
PNAS July 14, 2015. 112 (28) 8567-8572.
J Child Fam Stud. 1994(3):175.
Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2011 Jun;21(3):474-81.
International J Exercise Science: 10(1):6.
Environment and Behavior. 1991 Jan;23(1):3–26.