Nature and Mental Health

Written By: Marlina Selva, LMFT, ACS Site Supervisor, On-Campus Counseling Program

The demands of school and daily routines can be a source of mental fatigue for students as well as for parents.  Fortunately, there are ways of alleviating mental stress.  One such way is through encounters with nature.  Outdoor activities can help relax and restore the mind, whether it be in the form of playing in the grass, gardening or caring for plants, camping, trekking, observing the sunrise or sunset, sitting near the beach, lake, river or stream.  Research shows that connecting with nature increases well-being, positive feelings, and inspiration (Passmore & Howell, 2014).  Taking some time out of busy schedules may seem like an impossible task at times, but the benefits could make life easier in the long run.

Children currently have less opportunity to be outdoors in terms of both time and space. Some schools provide nature experiences as part of recess, special activity, or simply a class. Parents can also facilitate encounters with nature in their households with their children.  Planning outdoor activities as mentioned above, gardening in the backyard, or caring for plants inside the home are some examples.  These experiences have a potentially significant effect on learning and mental health.

Interesting Facts (source: University of Washington)

  • Exposure to nature can bring back the mind from the mental fatigue of work or studies, contributing to improved work performance and satisfaction.
  • Urban nature (e.g., parks, walkways, integrated in building design) provides calming and inspiring environments as well as encourages inquisitiveness, alertness, and learning.
  • Green spaces provide necessary places and opportunities for exercise, which improves memory, cognitive function, and learning.
  • Outdoor activities can help decrease symptoms of stress and depression.
  • Activity in green settings can improve symptoms of AD/HD in children, acting as an effective supplement to traditional behavioral and medicinal treatments.
  • Connections to nature are important for encouraging social relationships, imagination and creativity, and cognitive and intellectual development; these all facilitate social, emotional, and mental health.

What About Technological Representations of Nature? (sources: University of Washington; Capaldi et al., 2015)

Technologically mediated or virtual exposure to nature (e.g., viewing images or videos) is better than no exposure when unable to get outdoors.  However, when virtual exposure to nature is compared to actual contact with nature, real nature experiences have a greater benefit.  While browsing nature photographs or watching a nature documentary may provide a boost in your child’s mood, getting outdoors and connecting directly with nature is optimal for maximizing happiness.

Mental Health Services

Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS) provides school-based counseling services through the On-Campus Counseling Program.  For more information or to make a referral, please contact your child’s school guidance counselor or the ACS onsite supervisor.  ACS also offers affordable individual, family, and group counseling and psychotherapy during afternoon and evening hours for youth and families through the Community Counseling Program.  This program has offices located in Redwood City and Palo Alto. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please contact Connie Mayer, LMFT, Director of Outpatient Counseling Services, at or (650) 424-0852 ext. 104.

Resources for Parents and Children

Open Space Preserves

  • Open Space, Parks & Golf Administration
    3201 East Bayshore Road, Palo Alto, California 94303  |  650-496-6962
  • Baylands Nature Preserve
    2500 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto, CA 94303  |  650-617-3156
  • Baylands Nature Center
    2775 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto, CA 94303  |  650-329-2506
  • Esther Clark Preserve
    End of Old Trace Road, off Arastradero Road, Palo Alto, CA  |  650-329-2423
  • Foothills Park
    3300 Page Mill Road, Los Altos Hills, CA 94022  |  650-329-2423
  • Pearson-Arastradero Preserve
    1530 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto, CA 94304  |  650-329-2423

Article References

Capaldi, C. A., Passmore, H.-A., Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Dopko, R. L. (2015).  Flourishing in nature: A review of the benefits of connecting with nature and its application as a wellbeing intervention. International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(4), 1-16.

Passmore, H.-A., & Howell, A. J. (2014). Nature involvement increases hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing: A two-week experimental study. Ecopsychology, 6, 148-154.

Wolf, K.L., and Flora, K. (2010). Mental health and function – A literature review. In: Green Cities: Good Health. College of the Environment, University of Washington.