Outdoor environments can promote the mental health of adolescents by supporting physical activity, restoration and social connection

Wales, M. ., Mårtensson, F. ., Hoff, E. ., & Jansson, M. . (2022). Elevating the role of the outdoor environment for adolescent wellbeing in everyday life. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.774592

Research documenting the mental health and wellbeing benefits of nature engagement tends to focus more on adults and children than adolescents. Yet, the increase in mental health problems among adolescents is an international concern. This paper discusses this concern and issues a call for “an elevated focus on the role of outdoor environments in adolescents’ everyday lives as a source of wellbeing.”

Outdoor environments can provide multiple pathways to wellbeing by reducing harm and building or restoring capacities. Three such pathways for adolescents have been identified: the restorative nature, physical activity, and social life. Outdoor environments, in this context, include residential yards or gardens, parks, playgrounds, school grounds, and other neighborhood outdoor facilities. Also included are streets, squares, and other nearby landscapes, such as forests, lakes, or beaches. Time in these outdoor environments can promote adolescents’ emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. Unfortunately, the behavior of adolescents is “often negatively interpreted” and their presence “viewed suspiciously,” resulting in adolescents feeling unwelcome in some outdoor spaces. The feeling of not being wanted can deter adolescents from using the outdoor environments. Additionally, the way public outdoor environments are planned, designed, and managed often makes such environments unattractive to adolescents. Public playgrounds, for example, are usually designed for younger children. Outdoor spaces specifically designed or allocated for adolescents are rare.

Children and youth are more likely to spend time in and bond with outdoor places that match their developmental needs. The developmental needs of teenagers include physical activity, restoration, and social interaction. One of the main reasons adolescents go outside is for physical exercise. Features or conditions of the outdoor environment which can facilitate physical activity include paths, proximity to parks and sport facilities, overall varied landscape, and traffic safety. Also of great importance to adolescents are opportunities for hanging out with friends away from parental supervision. Such opportunities are often contingent on independent mobility. Green school grounds are offered as an example of an outdoor environment that can meet the physical activity, restoration, and social interaction needs of adolescents, while also promoting academic achievement.

While this paper presented some of the pathways through which everyday outdoor environments can promote adolescents’ mental health and wellbeing, more research is still needed. Such research could help clarify “the specific attributes, activities and experiences related to places outdoors” which meet the developmental needs of adolescents.

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