Healing Trauma in the Outdoors

Outdoors Healing

As the weather begins warming up, families are sure to spend more time outdoors. There’s so much fun to be had while in nature—but did you know there are healing elements to spending time outside? While you’re grabbing your sunscreen and making fun plans for the zoo, a hike, or any other outdoor activity, here are some ways you can harness the healing of the outdoors for children who have histories of trauma and loss.

Connecting Outdoors

According to the Karyn Purvis Institute for Child Development, the basis of trauma-informed care is dependent on connection. Connection is imperative for attachment between children and their caregivers. And, when used correctly, outdoor activities are perfect opportunities to build connection and even benefit emotionally!

When we spend time with our children outside, whether in play or on a walk, we are intentionally experiencing the world without screens and many distractions found indoors. Along with the natural physical benefits of activity outdoors, studies show that nature plays a key role in children’s mental health, particularly in “green” spaces, like parks.

Tragically, children with a history of trauma and loss are faced with processing and coping with challenging memories. However, for these children, the outdoors offer an even greater chance for healing and hope—especially by the side of a loving, trusting adult.

The Outdoors and Trauma

In an article by the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, nature can serve as a safe haven for children who have experienced trauma. “Nature-based interventions can help create pathways towards resilience for children, supporting emotion regulation skills, family connections, and building stability through a connection to place,” says the Samuel Centre. Additionally, when added to other therapies, “[Nature] can act as another kind of supportive co-facilitator, where materials in the natural landscape become objects which the child can manipulate and engage with, just as they would with toys inside.”

As a parent, you have likely seen the joy and wonder of your child while playing outdoors. With open space to jump, skip, and run, the outdoors give children the opportunity to develop their motor fitness, creativity, and even independence. According to Abilities.com, unrestricted outdoor play can reduce your child’s anxiety, increase his or her sensory processing integration, improve his or her emotional regulation, and increase his or her attention to tasks.

When we allow our children the opportunity to play outside unrestricted—unafraid of dirt or scraped knees—we allow them the chance to explore new environments, learn more about nature, and make fond memories. Abilities.com highlights the healing benefits of the outdoors for children, even calling the outdoors therapeutic.

According to KidsTLC, children who have encountered painful life experiences think more clearly and cope more effectively when regularly exposed to the outdoors. Because outdoor play helps children relax, connect, and build confidence, we can begin to build opportunities for our children to begin their healing while playing outside this spring.

Beginning Outdoor Play

Utilizing outdoor play to help children who have experienced trauma and loss doesn’t have to be intimidating! When beginning your time outdoors, consider the following:

  • Try to be in green spaces. We know that the best outdoor play occurs in green spaces, like gardens, parks, woods, and creeks, separating our children from the bustle of the city.
  • Keep things light. While utilizing nature’s healing elements, don’t take the playtime too seriously! Our children shouldn’t feel any pressure to perform while playing, so avoid discussing serious topics or trying to turn outdoor play into a parent/child therapy session.
  • Stay creative! There are lots of ways to get out in nature and take a break from the indoors. Struggling to come up with ideas for things to do outside? Begin with this list of 60 outdoor activities for kids!
  • Don’t expect healing to happen overnight. Outdoor play is not a substitute for true therapy, nor is it a guarantee your child will heal years of trauma and pain. Don’t set your expectations too high. Instead, consider this one more touchpoint for connection with your sweet child and trust that they are benefitting from your intentions!
  • Remember what you loved as a child. Do you have fond memories of playing outside? Maybe you remember skipping rocks at a local pond, picking wildflowers in fields, or climbing trees. When you struggle to find an activity to do with your child, picture yourself as a kid and consider that, while it may be a different generation, kids today love playing as much as you did.

Childhood should be full of chances to play, and for children who have experienced trauma and loss, this is not an exception. Take advantage of the warmer weather this spring and summer and give your children just what they may need—playtime in nature!