Nature’s Path to Improved Youth Mental Health

By National 4-H Council May 23, 2022

It's no secret that spending time outdoors has many health benefits. Access to nature is associated with lower levels of stress, anxiety, and sadness. Young people especially have much to gain from the benefits of nature. Youth yearn for and seek outdoor experiences, whether it's a soccer game at a park, a day at camp, growing a garden, or caring for animals.

While the state of youth mental health has been on the decline for more than a decade, it has accelerated over the past few years. From a global pandemic and climate change to social injustice and cyber bullying, young people are facing a world of uncertainty and a new set of challenges and stressors. Now more than ever, engaging with nature is a sanctuary, a path to reconnecting and healing.


Our recent survery, revealed that 85 percent of teens believe access to the outdoors is a basic human right, and another 89 percent regularly think about the environment. After spending time outdoors, 66 percent said they feel less stressed, and the levels of stress only decrease the more time they spend outdoors. This gives us insight into how much teens value time spent outdoors and the benefits it provides.

Despite this knowledge, teens recognize that access to nature varies with 62 percent of teens wishing they had more time to spend outdoors but are too committed to other activities. The teens surveyed also recognize the gaps, with 82 percent of them wishing their school did more to provide outdoor experiences and learning opportunities. Another 48 percent said they would like to spend more time outdoors but were not sure where to start.

Cooperative Extension's 4-H program is just the place to make that start. 4-H empowers youth by giving them the support and skills they need while providing rewarding outdoor experiences. The THR!VE Youth-Adult Mindfulness Retreat is one of these opportunities. The retreat, offered through Iowa State University Extension and Outreach's 4-H program, helps teens reconnect with parents, create new connections, and discover the benefits of mindfulness while participating in outdoor activities like zip-lining, archery, hiking, horseback riding, and canoeing. Youth left the retreat feeling, "calm and refreshed, relaxed and recharged, accepted, encouraged, creative, more connected, confident, and better able to manage stress."

Teens crave more connection to nature and the environment in their everyday lives. They need access to programs that not only deliver the benefits of time outdoors, but also the education that enriches their lives. Today's youth feel empowered and united to become agents of change that successfully create a future with healthier people and a healthier planet. All they need is the right opportunity.

It's not an easy fix, however, 4-H can be part of the solution. Even in today's hybrid-virtual world, 4-H opens doors to nature and learning to ignite a spark in all youth. Find your local 4-H club here.

For ideas and activities to get youth enjoying the outdoors, visit 4-H at Home.