Today, more than ever before, school-related stress is taking a toll on the physical and emotional health of our students. From standardized tests, to bullying, to increasingly rigorous safety drills, stress is a very real problem for the younger generation. Left unchecked, it can lead to everything from sleeplessness, headaches, and stomach problems to depression and aggression. In rare but extreme situations of high stress and trauma, some younger students have even been shown to regress developmentally, returning to behaviors they had formerly outgrown like thumb sucking and bed-wetting.

Ongoing research from the National Wildlife Federation suggests that nature and outdoor time can help alleviate stress and foster improved sleep and healing in children who may be experiencing heightened levels of stress and even trauma.

Most fully-grown Americans understand how a walk outside can help clear their head or have a calming effect—a phenomenon that a 2010 Japanese study confirmed, noting how a walk in the woods can lower stress. Getting outdoors has other benefits, too: vitamin D for more efficient brain and physiological functioning, exposure to natural light to normalize sleep patterns, fresh air to lower blood pressure and support cognitive function, and soil bacteria that increase serotonin levels.

These benefits extend to kids. Research has shown that kids who spend time outdoors get more physical activity—and the endorphin boost that comes along with it—than children who spend their whole days indoors. In addition to offering therapeutic benefits to students who have been under stress, outdoor spaces are highly supportive of students’ learning and academic performance. One study found that “doses of nature serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible tool for managing ADHD symptoms.” Researchers found that even spending as little as 20 minutes outside was enough to improve concentration when students came back to the classroom.

Nature and outdoor time have also been shown to improve the amount and quality of sleep a child gets. In our 2011 report, Green Time for Sleep Time, we found that time in natural light can help reset a child’s natural circadian sleep rhythms and offset the sleep-robbing blue light that kids are exposed to while staring at electronic screens. Many of America’s kids are sleep deprived, and natural light is often an overlooked remedy for those feeling high levels of school-related stress. 

There are many ways in which schools can address elevated stress levels in students, whether it is brought on by safety drills or by other factors such as community violence, academic burden, or bullying. In comparison to the other tools that schools are using to approach student stress, nature and the outdoors provide a unique opportunity, since they can be used either immediately after a particularly nerve-wracking event or as part of an ongoing program at the school.

The National Wildlife Federation offers the following tools to help schools make their grounds greener and more nature-like:

  • Trees for Wildlife by the National Wildlife Federation is a program that provides thousands of free trees to schools and youth groups. Creating green spaces that are wildlife-friendly is one way communities can help combat the wildlife crisis.
  • National Wildlife Federation Schoolyard Habitats is America’s largest school garden program supporting a network of 7,000 schools that have created onsite wildlife habitats. These habitats provide food, water, shelter, and places to rear young for native wildlife species such as birds, small mammals, amphibians, and pollinators.
  • The Campus Wild is a report on higher education campus greening by the National Wildlife Federation. Many college, community college, and university campuses have extensive garden, tree, and landscaping programs. The report has a special section on trees.

If you are interested in learning more about the effects of “green time” on the performance of students, check out our Back to School – Back Outside report.