At the steepest part of the upper trail of Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park, a class of fifth graders stood fearfully peering down from the dizzying cliff. They had hiked more than three miles up the trail, but were nervous about the final stretch, where they had to walk down a steep granite staircase to an overlook 2,500 feet above the valley.
Finally, one student volunteered to go first – a student with total vision loss. Under the watchful eye of two experienced educators, he traversed the uneven terrain while his classmates watched with rapt attention. Walking this path, he explained, with its vicissitudes and potential pitfalls, was his life many days in the blind. His example helped the rest of the group work up the courage to reach the overlook.
This setting, with nature as an equalizer, created the opportunity for this revelation. When the students returned to school, their newfound understanding and appreciation of their blind classmate’s challenges helped change the social dynamics of the classroom.
Yet this type of meaningful and memorable connection was nearly impossible during the virtual learning days of the pandemic—one of the many pedagogical casualties of a year or more spent mostly in front of screens and indoors. Educators in the US overwhelmingly believe that their students have experienced “significant” learning loss. Many teachers report that their students are two years behind, especially in their ability to be emotionally resilient and relate to other children.
These are not conditions that require a “return to normal” as many advocate. Before 2020, a mental health crisis is already underway among young people. This crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the aftershocks will reverberate through this generation unless we create a multi-pronged approach based on rebuilding the whole child.
That approach should include one of the few science-backed, equitable initiatives we’ve found with broad bipartisan appeal: immersive outdoor learning.
The idea of getting outside to improve your state of mind is nothing new; “forest schools” have existed in the United States since 1927, and 75 percent of Americans count the outdoors among their better pleasures in life. What is new is the growing mountain of evidence proving the efficacy of outdoor education programs.
Immersive outdoor learning involves leaving the traditional school setting for several days and nights, connecting with classmates and nature within the confines of a protected park, forest, or other nature-rich landscape with the power to evoke wonder. Challenging circumstances that may exist for students at home—food insecurity, distracting learning environments, and more—can be set aside while students participate in these programs. And whatever habits and relationships were formed within the walls of their schools are disrupted by new patterns of engagement and visual imagery.
In these compelling programs can be found a salve for many of the debilitating effects on our youth of the past two years of virtual learning and isolation: A recent survey found that 43 percent of American teenagers had experienced a panic or anxiety attack in the past year, and 22 percent missed at least three days of school due to mental health problems. One effect of simply spending time in nature is a short-term boost in the ability to deal with stress, while looking at beautiful natural scenery has been shown to provide peace of mind and other mental health benefits. While the long-term effects are still being studied, studies show that early exposure to nature leads to lasting mental health benefits.
Virtual learning also took its toll on students, with 51 percent feeling overwhelmed by the format. Many of us have longed for more physical interaction and personal connection in the last two years, and this lack of connection has been even more pronounced in young adults: a crucial stage of social development has been delayed. Excessive screen time has been shown to reduce attention span and slow cognitive development.
In thoughtfully designed immersive outdoor learning, screen time is limited or eliminated, putting the focus on students’ interactions with each other and with the natural environment, creating a sense of place or connection to their surroundings. These principles of social-emotional learning reduce stress, increase confidence, teach empathy, and even improve academic achievement among students. Combined with the restorative properties of focused time outdoors, these social-emotional aspects of learning can help students recover from information processing fatigue and improve their attention span.
Many policies aimed at helping schools and young people are mired in political controversy, but immersive outdoor learning has mass appeal: Over 80 percent of Americans believe protecting natural resources is patriotic, 74 percent believe the country should “ to do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” and 90 percent believe their state’s parks and wildlife areas play a key role in their quality of life.
In 2022, bills funding outdoor education in New Mexico and Washington passed with impressive majorities, including a 92-6 vote for Washington House Bill 2078, which provides grant funding for public schools and tribes to develop or expand of outdoor educational experiences by working with state agencies and existing school outdoor programs.
We should follow the example of Washington and New Mexico. The costs of these outdoor education programs will greatly outweigh the benefits. Creating, expanding, and funding immersive outdoor learning may be one of the only bipartisan solutions to the youth mental health crisis. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), along with Congressman John Sarbane (D-Med.), are on track for something with legislation introduced in April. Whether at the state or federal level, now is the time to act boldly.
Nature can be the great healer and equalizer as long as we ensure that everyone can experience it.
Nicole Ardoyne is an associate professor at the Doerr School of Sustainability and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.
Philip Kilbridge is the CEO of NatureBridge, a nonprofit organization that provides engaging outdoor education programs for young people in US national parks.