Anxiety tends to have short- and long-term detrimental effects on children's physical and mental development. Previous studies have shown that time in nature can be an effective treatment for anxiety. Such studies, however, have generally involved adults. This study investigated the effect of nature-based guidance lessons on anxiety and connection to nature among elementary students. It was based, in part, on the understanding that increasing nature connection for children while at school could address equity issues relating to access to nature.
Four third-grade classes participated in the study. The classes were randomly assigned to control and experimental conditions. Both groups participated in a series of six guidance lessons from the Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies (PATHS) guidance curriculum being implemented at the school. The lessons were exactly the same for students in both groups, except that the experimental group received the lessons outdoors. Students in both groups completed assessments before and after participating in weekly guidance lessons over a period of six weeks. Two assessment measures were used: The Beck Anxiety Inventory for Youth (BAI-Y), a general measure of childhood anxiety; and the Connection to Nature Index (CNI), measuring connection to nature.
Results showed that the two groups (control and experimental) were basically equivalent on both measures prior to participating in the guidance lessons. After the six-week intervention period, the experimental group had significantly lower scores than the control group on the anxiety assessment. The experimental group decreased their anxiety scores at post-test by an average of 4.94 points; the control group increased by an average of 1.93 points. While students in both groups scored higher on connection to nature after participating in the guidance lessons, the experimental group scored slightly, but not significantly, higher than the control group.
This study found that “spending one extra class period outdoors per week significantly reduced anxiety among third graders during a time when anxiety was peaking for other students.” These results suggest that conducting guidance lessons in nature may be beneficial in terms of promoting student health and development. Because children from low SES backgrounds are at a greater risk for developing stress-related disorders than other children, providing more access to nature during school time could possibly address some health-related equity issues.