The great outdoors: What our young people need

Dr Helena McAnally, University of Otago

Young people today are facing rapid change across a variety of social, technological, environmental and familial domains, on a scale not experienced by previous generations. Furthermore, relative to their parents’ generation, they are, on average, less healthy (see also here): they are heavier, less fit, and more anxious, depressed and lonely. They are increasingly alienated, not just from social support networks that exist in a face-to-face setting but also from the environment and the world of nature: the great outdoors. This alienation, referred to by Louv as ‘nature deficit disorder’, has become increasingly acknowledged as detrimental. Conversely, research is increasingly showing that time spent in nature is beneficial. Not only does time spent in nature increase general well-being, but it improves certain types of thinking, stimulating creative thinking in particular. This effect has been shown in a past study in the USA involving adults on an outward bound course, and we were interested in whether this effect could be demonstrated in younger people as well.

St Paul’s Collegiate School, Hamilton, NZ

St Paul’s Collegiate School in Hamilton runs a two term residential camp, Tihoi, for all year 10 pupils. Half the year 10 cohort attend the camp for terms one and two, and the remainder of the cohort attend for the second part of the year. The Tihoi programme is an outdoor education programme that includes almost no access to social media or electronic devices. This provided the perfect opportunity to test whether young people experience improved creative thinking with increased exposure to nature. We were able to work with the staff and students at St Paul’s to study this. As part of our research, students at both locations completed a creative thinking task similar to that used in the earlier outward bound research. We compared scores on this task between the locations and we also compared students’ own scores from their first testing to their 15 week follow-up. We found evidence to suggest that the students’ creative thinking did improve when they participated in the Tihoi programme and that this improvement happened after a short amount of time (evident at the initial test, rather than at follow-up, 15 weeks later).

There are important take home messages from the research that we did with St Paul’s.

  • One important message is that there was no observed harm associated with reduced media use and increased exposure to the outdoors.
  • Secondly, there were some observable benefits associated with these changes – and there are likely to be more benefits that were not measured by our research.
  • Lastly, these benefits, particularly in the case of creative thinking, were observed relatively early on in the programme (at the first assessment) and then maintained over time, confirmed at a 15 week follow-up (while the participants were still at Tihoi).

The restorative effects of nature

There is evidence from previous research that that may help explain these findings. European research suggests that primary and pre-school aged children benefit from a brief (20 minute) nature walk more so than from other exercise, with improvements seen in their concentration. So this may be an explanation – perhaps our participants at Tihoi were simply more “task focused” – that is, better able to concentrate on the creative thinking task- than their classmates at school. However, it may be that some of the other benefits of being exposed to nature, such as more positive affect (or happiness), also stimulate creative thinking.

Time

It is also important to recognise that there is a limit to the amount of time in the day and there are also limits to our attention: The more thinly we spread our attentional processes, the poorer the quality of that attention is. Research suggests that young people are exposed to nearly 11 hours of media content a day. Removing a substantial portion of this will free up time for other things, potentially producing improvements in thinking.  Furthermore, time spent engaged with internet-capable devices may take up time that could be spent outdoors or engaging with others. The benefits of making time for outdoor activities may extend beyond simply improved creative thinking.

Well-being

As mentioned in the introduction above, the current generation of young people face a number of health issues, including poorer fitness and mental health than their parents. Getting outside (and getting active) may not only improve fitness but mood as well, leading to an overall increase in health and well-being. It is also worth noting that spending time with people (in person) and spending time on sport and exercise are both related to better well-being.

What we can do

Overall, our results indicate not only that spending more time outdoors, and less time using media, is beneficial, but also that it doesn’t require a full 2 term camp in order to see these benefits (since the benefits were observed in students after just a few days immersed in the outdoors). It also implies that there are important things we can do to support our tamariki. Device free school yards, access to school camps, and time spent learning outside of the classroom, in nature, may all have beneficial effects, improving the health, well-being and classroom performance of young people.

In short, alienation from nature, increased device use and lack of human interaction don’t help our young people. Instead, taking our young people outside and helping them forge relationships with the people and the natural world around them is likely to help them across a wide range of domains.


The research on which this blog post is based was published in the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, NZARE’s official journal (a Springer Education publication). 

McAnally, H. M., Robertson, L. A., & Hancox, R. J. (2018). Effects of an outdoor education programme on creative thinking and well-being in adolescent boys. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 53(2), 241-255. doi:10.1007/s40841-018-0111-x

Cover photo: Casey Horner on Unsplash


Helena McAnally (1)Dr Helena McAnally has worked on many research projects with young people, and has a focus on well-being and health of the youth of Aotearoa. She currently works in the Preventive and Social Medicine Department at the University of Otago.

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