The impact of the outdoors on kids’ mental health: A Scraped-Up interview

This is my absolute least favorite time of year to try to get the kids outside. It’s cold enough to discourage casual outdoor play and there’s no snow to provide a counteracting lure. Plus it’s practically dark by the time the kids get home–and definitely dark by the time I get home. I’ve noticed everyone in our house is getting a bit…antsy. Possibly cranky, but definitely antsy. That got me curious about the impact that the outdoors has on our mental well-being as well as our physical well-being. So I did what I do best, which is call on an expert to explain it to me.

Tara McKernan is a school based mental health counselor at the Mount Desert Elementary School. She was a special education teacher for 16 years before returning to get her Masters of Education in clinical counseling. In addition to her work in the school, she also provides individual counseling through The Counseling Collaborative in Hulls Cove on Mount Desert Island. As a counselor, Tara works with individuals of all ages. She has experience working with anxiety, depression, disordered eating, grief, relationship issues, ADHD, learning differences, and High Functioning Autism.

Tara McKernan

Tara graduated from Miami University of Ohio with a B.S. in Special Education. She has her Master of Education in Mental Health Counseling from the University of Maine, Orono. She currently resides in Town Hill with her husband and nine-year-old son. She considers herself lucky to hike, swim, camp, read and listen to music with them all of the time.

Children’s mental health isn’t a topic that the general public thinks about a lot. What are some of the most common children’s mental health issues that we see in Maine? 

As a general public we tend to think of children’s mental health most often in the context of ADHD. It happens to be the mental health diagnosis that is most often discussed and reported in the media. This also means that it is often misunderstood. On a whole I would argue that mental health (in adults and children) is not talked about near as much as it should be. Before I digress too much into that subject I will say that approximately 1 in 5 children have a diagnosable mental health disorder in a given year.  As I mentioned above, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is one of the most prevalent. Depression, Anxiety, Behavioral and Conduct Disorders and Autism Spectrum Disorders are also quite common. I have been interested to observe what seems to be a rise in anxiety in children and adolescents. Currently, I don’t have hard data to support my theory that it is on the rise. However, it is being talked and written about more frequently. In some ways anxiety feels like a new buzz word. It is likely that the word itself is being overused in popular culture. With that said, I also see a genuine trend of more anxious children. The reasons for that could be a whole other post in and of itself!

Why is it so important for kids to get outdoors? What impacts does it have on their health and well-being?

Richard Louv, the author of The Last Child in the Woods, does a fantastic job outlining the issues with the disconnect that children are having with nature. He coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to explain the developmental effects that this has on children. There are so many benefits that come from kids being outside. The obvious one is simply that it allows for more movement. When it comes to mental health diagnoses like ADHD, exercise is truly one of the best medicines. Childhood obesity is another hot issue in the United States. There are a multitude of reasons that this is such a problem for our kids.  Part of the issue has to do with kids been too sedentary.  Diet is also a concern. We are learning increasingly more about the connection of what is happening in our guts to our overall mental health. While that doesn’t tie directly to your question about the importance of having children outside, it is necessary for us to look at the overall health impacts of diet and exercise in our children.

Recently, my little family was hiking with some of our friends. In our group there was my 9-year-old son and an 8-year-old. I was watching as they scrambled up rocks, ran down steep and narrow paths and balanced on logs crossing a few streams. Later that day I was reading an article writing by an occupational therapist who was making an argument for creating less safe playgrounds. I had read a few other articles of this sort. We have gone to such an extreme edge of making places safe for our kids that they aren’t developing the internal systems that their bodies need. This is why we see so many sensory, balance and attention issues in our kids. Taking children on outdoor adventures provides them with opportunities to push boundaries, take risks and learn some great emotional regulation skills. This is absolutely necessary for the physical and mental health of our kids.

Let me give you a more concrete example of the emotional regulation skill development I just referenced. We put our son on skis as early as we possibly could. He adores talking about the fact that he was on skis at 18 months old. Two winters ago he accidentally attempted his first black diamond. It was one of those days on the mountain when the sky and the snow can blend into each other. To him, it looked like he was going to ski off the edge of a cliff. His amygdala fired off all sorts of warning signals in his head and he froze. [Cherie note: If, like me, you haven’t thought about the parts of the brain since high school biology, this may help.] Then, he promptly got hysterical. I’m sure that people skiing by us thought I was the worst mother on the mountain. It took a lot of doing but we eventually got down the black diamond and moved onto a more manageable blue square. When he calmed down we talked a lot about what had happened. Those long moments on the mountain gave us tons of opportunity to talk about fear, risks, safety and the importance of challenges. He didn’t try another super hard run that day.

Fast forward to last winter. We were out skiing again this time with his older cousin. We headed towards the same run. There was a tiny moment of nervousness but he managed to ski down with relative ease and confidence. Again we processed the situation (poor kid has a therapist as a mother- he is always subjected to processing). He was able to reflect on how the nervousness felt different than the fear from the year before. He was also smart enough to realize that he had to be challenged to become a better skier. As his mom, I was thrilled that he not only got to practice his skill with skiing but he got to practice dealing with anxiety. Kids need to have those opportunities so they can develop necessary tools for emotional regulation. Nature is the perfect place to practice those skills. 

We live in a state with lots of outdoor opportunities. What would you like to see us doing more or less of for our kids in this area?

I should probably state here that I grew up in a family in which our business was experiential education. My family started a residential camp for children with special needs. They also ran (and still do!) an outdoor education program. I bring this up because that has really influenced my belief that we need to be getting our students out and using nature as their classroom. Having worked in the education system for 17 years I have seen how increasing pressures with standardized testing has had negative impacts on how often some schools are able to get out and use the natural environment to teach. Living on MDI, I feel that our district does a pretty great job at using Acadia National Park. We are incredibly lucky to have the park in our backyard. Honestly, I can’t say enough about the important impact of experiential education on kids.

We all know that kids are tied to their electronic devices. It honestly hurts my brain when I see children outside in these amazing places that Maine has to offer and their faces are glued to the screen. We need to be providing opportunities where devices are deemed off limits. Kids need to be outside actually connecting with nature and separating from the pull of social media. It isn’t going to be an easy task but it is a battle that must be fought.  

One of the things I love about taking kids outdoors is that it isn’t cost prohibitive. Certainly some activities like skiing are but it costs virtually nothing to take a walk outside or to climb a small mountain. There are some lovely programs like the free park passes for all 4th graders, or WinterKids, which offers skiing discounts to Maine 5th, 6th and 7th graders. I would love to see people continue to take advantage of these programs and for other programs to develop.  

This might be a little more controversial but I also feel like we need to be providing our kids with more opportunities to explore outside without being under the thumb of an adult. A lot of important social-emotional learning happens when children are left to explore in the woods on their own or with a group of friends.  

If there is one thing you want people to take away about kids and the outdoors, what would it be?

Recently, the world feels like a pretty scary place (remember when I said that there were lots of reasons that kids might be more anxious). Children need to see and experience a world in which they can still feel its beauty and magic. They need to be able to plant their feet on the ground and feel rooted to their surroundings. Kids should have moments in which they are awed by the majesty of nature. They need to climb, fall down and hear their laughter echoing on the wind. If we provide them with those opportunities they will be ultimately be healthier and happier.

Personally, what’s your favorite thing to do outside with your son?

That is actually a hard one! It is such a toss up. I have already expressed my love of skiing with him. I also really adore swimming and jumping off ledges with him in the summer. It is so fun to watch him do crazy jumps and then swim until he is exhausted. There is nothing quite like the exhaustion that comes from a day at the lake.

Thanks, Tara! You can learn more about Tara at The Counseling Collaborative’s website. And remember to keep getting your kids outside, even when it’s cold, gray, and uninspiring out there. We benefit from it in all sorts of ways.

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.