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  • Lee Duffy-Ledbetter

Embracing Nature: How Outdoor Time This Summer Can Benefit Your Teen’s Mental Health

In today’s fast-paced, digitally-driven world, getting teenagers outside and engaged with nature might seem daunting. However, mounting scientific evidence underscores the benefits of outdoor time for the mental health of adolescents. As parents, understanding these benefits can be a powerful motivator to encourage teens to step outside, breathe fresh air, get some sunlight, and connect with the natural world. Here's a look at why nature is crucial for their mental well-being, backed by the science of developmental neurophysiology, which studies how the brain develops and functions.

I recently attended a conference and heard Dr. Tim Silvestri of Muhlenberg College, an expert on suicidal ideation and behaviors, present on how the science of developmental neurophysiology can explain them. I found the presentation so impactful that I wanted to share a few highlights from which parents can most benefit. 

First, neurophysiology can be applied to different ideas or concepts related to mental health and suicide prevention, and  we can look to neurophysiology as a tool to operationalize diagnoses and better treat mental health-related symptoms. To get my point across, I’ll use an easy example: the importance of sunlight for your mental health.

You’ve probably heard that sunlight and getting outside in nature is good for your mental health. Let’s talk a little bit about the brain and its physiology to uncover why sunlight is important

Without getting too technical, here are some of the basics…

  • Sunlight increases serotonin and melatonin production in the brain, the hormones largely responsible for mood and sleep regulation, respectively. 

  • These hormones don’t just operate in the brain and serve several other functions, but said another way, if you don’t get the necessary amount of sunlight each day, you may struggle to “feel good” because of decreased mood and sleep. 

Simple, right? Let’s dig a little bit deeper.

The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is a bilateral structure in the anterior part of the hypothalamus. Did I lose you? Maybe that’s too deep. How about this?

In simpler terms, the SCN is a part of the brain that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Research points to the strong association between lack of sunlight, or insolation, and cognitive impairment in individuals with depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) (Kent et al., 2009). Environmental illumination is essential, which is why we often hear about seasonal affective disorder occurring more frequently in places with less sunlight. By decreasing your natural light exposure, you risk tricking your body’s circadian rhythms into putting your body into a more depressed state.

Sunlight and light therapy are connected with positive changes in regional cerebral blood flow, which is associated with depressive disorders and Alzheimer’s. Regional cerebral blood flow. Essentially, you want blood to flow throughout different regions of your brain, and sunlight and light therapy help make that happen.

There is a lot of information out there these days on mental health, wellness, suicide, you name it. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out what’s reliable, sound advice. Asking important questions like why something works may help you better approach your wellness journey or that of your teen. While sifting through it all, consider these practical times to get outside with your teen. It’s worth it; it’s science.

Practical Tips for Parents

  • Encourage Regular Outdoor Activities: Plan family outings to parks, hiking trails, or nature reserves. Even a daily walk in the neighborhood can make a difference.

  • Create Nature-Inspired Spaces at Home: If access to natural settings is limited, bring nature indoors with plants, natural light, and nature sounds.

  • Balance Screen Time: Balance screen time with outdoor time to ensure that teens spend adequate time away from digital devices.

  • Lead by Example: Model a love for nature by engaging in outdoor activities yourself. Your enthusiasm can be contagious and inspire your teen to join in.

  • Support Outdoor Hobbies: Encourage interests that involve nature, such as gardening, bird-watching, or outdoor sports.

By prioritizing time in nature, we can help our teens develop healthier minds and bodies. The benefits extend beyond just the present moment, contributing to their overall resilience and well-being as they navigate the challenges of adolescence.


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