3 Healthy Activities to Help Children Unplug and Reconnect to Nature

Did you know that “Internet Gaming Disorder”1 and “Exercise-Deficit Disorder”2 are real medical conditions? A report published in 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children between the ages of 8 and 18 years old average 7.5 hours a day seven days a week playing on electronic media, subsequently decreasing available time for physical activity.3 This same report showed that many children experience significantly increased health problems, such as obesity, vitamin D deficiency, anxiety, and depression because they are addicted to technology.


  • Nine million children between the ages of 6 and 19 years old are overweight or obese.4
  • Children with autism are 40% more likely to be obese.5
  • Our bodies produce vitamin D when exposed to the sun. The increased indoor sedentary lifestyles of many children are contributing to an alarming rise in vitamin D deficiency, resulting in impaired health to bones and teeth.6
  • Anxiety and depression in children are also on the rise. Nearly one in three adolescents will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by the age of 18.7
  • Children with common childhood disorders, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and sensory processing disorder (SPD), are at risk for these health-related problems. Studies examining the effect of physical activity on ADHD symptoms in children have found statistically significant reduction in the severity of ADHD symptoms.8

Physical Activity and Sensory Processing Disorder

The prevalence of SPD has substantially increased in the past decade. While many variables impact this shift in SPD prevalence, one factor is the decrease in children’s physical activity both at home and school. Studies show that children with SPD demonstrate reduced physical activity compared to peers.9

This cluster of evidence looking at SPD and ADHD points to the importance of physical activity in a child’s development and paves the way for validating wellness activities as important therapeutic intervention.

The Mental Health Advantages of Green Outdoor Settings

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health examined the impact of natural settings on ADHD symptoms and found that “green outdoor settings” reduced symptoms in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.10 Exposure to elements of nature contributes to healthy childhood development. Kuo & Taylor cite the conclusion of environmental psychologist Stephen Kaplan that natural environments engage the mind effortlessly, thus helping with attention restoration, giving the brain a break from “deliberate direct attention.”11

There is evidence of enhanced attention when exposed to natural settings and views, including activities such as gardening, hiking, and simply looking at grass and trees outside or even photos of nature.12 Most importantly, getting out in nature provides an outlet for movement, an essential element for health and well-being.

3 Wellness Interventions to Recommend

What can we do as expert therapists to change the trajectory of this ever-increasing childhood “wellness-robbing” problem? We can integrate wellness interventions into our therapy for children and teens so that they develop healthy bodies and healthy minds!

  1. Studies show yoga for children reduces anxiety and maladaptive behaviors, increasing a child’s self-confidence and sensory self-regulation.13,14 Two yoga poses with therapeutic benefit that are popular with kids are the bridge pose and the tree pose. MedBridge’s HEP library includes 26 yoga exercises made specifically for kids!
  2. Deep breathing is a quick and easy therapeutic intervention available anytime and anywhere. Conscious attention to breathing patterns affects the autonomic nervous system for regulating physiological response to stress, reducing anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and emotional disregulation.15
  3. Expose children to nature. Studies show that just five minutes of walking in nature improves mood, self-esteem, and creative thinking; builds stronger bones; and improves cardiovascular functioning.16 Get outside—play in a park, take a hike, or go fishing.

These therapeutic activities are highly effective for promoting a child’s developmental needs, from emotional regulation, social engagement, and attention span to motor planning and coordination. With the rising number of children diagnosed with ADHD, ASD, and SPD, pediatric wellness interventions are crucial for connecting children to the essential elements of nature. These approaches support children in overcoming deficits so that they can experience a better quality of life through meaningful and joyful activity.

Our respective professional organizations encourage us to find creative solutions for health promotion and prevention. We are in a unique position to facilitate change for the future of our children today and for generations to come. Let’s take it one step further; let’s practice wellness in our own daily lives as well so we can not only experience the benefits for ourselves, but also be role models.

Get moving outside and enjoy nature. We can lead the way. We can make it happen. Let’s begin now!

  1. Gentile, D. A., Bailey, K., Bavelier, D., Brockmyer, J. F., Cash, H., Coyne, S. M., & Doan, A., et al. (2017). Internet gaming disorder in children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 140. Supplemental article. https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/140/Supplement_2/S81
  2. Faigenbaum, A. D. & Myer, G. D. (2012). Exercise deficit disorder in youth: Play now or pay later. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 11(4): 196-200.
  3. Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Menlo Park, CA: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. https://www.kff.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/8010.pdf
  4. Hales, C. M., Carroll, M. D., Fryar, C. D., & Ogden, C. L. (2017). Prevalence of Obesity among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015-2016. National Center for Health Statistics. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db288.pdf
  5. Mische Lawson, L. & Foster, L. (2016). Sensory patterns, obesity, and physical activity participation of children with autism spectrum disorder. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 70: 7005180070pl-7005180070p8.
  6. Mithal, A., Wahl, D. A., Bonjour, J. P., Burckhardt, P., Dawson-Hughes, B., Eisman, J. A., & El-Hajj Fuleihan, G., et al. (2009). Global vitamin D status and determinants of hypovitaminosis D. Osteoporosis International, 20(11): 1807-20.
  7. National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Prevalence of Any Anxiety Disorder among Adolescents. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml
  8. Smith, A. L., Hoza, B., Linnea, K., McQuade, J. D., Tomb, M. Vaughn, A. J., & Shoulberg, E. K., et al. (2013). Pilot physical activity intervention reduces severity of ADHD symptoms in young children. Journal of Attention Disorders, 17(1): 70-82.
  9. Hochhauser, M. & Engel-Yeger, B. (2010). Sensory processing abilities and their relation to participation in leisure activities among children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (HFASD). Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4(4): 746-754.
  10. Kuo, F. E. & Taylor, A.F. (2004). A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: evidence from a national study. American Journal of Public Health, 94(9):1580-1586.
  11. Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15: 169-182.
  12. Lee, K. E., Williams, K. J. H., Sargent, L. D., Williams, N. S. G., & Johnson, K. A. (2015). 40-second green roof views sustain attention: the role of micro-breaks in attention restoration. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 42: 182-189.
  13. Weaver, L. (2016). An occupational therapist–led yoga intervention for anxious youth: outcomes and implications for research and practice.  American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 70: 7011520296p1.
  14. Black, L. I., Clarke, T. C., Barnes, P. M., Stussman, B. J., & Nahin, R. (2015). Use of complimentary health approaches among children ages 4-17 years in the United States: National health interview survey 2007-2012. National Health Statistics Reports, 78:1-19.
  15. Ma, X., Yue, Z.-Q., Gong, Z.-Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N.-Y., Shi, Y.-T., Wei, G.-X., & Li, Y.-F. (2017). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect, and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8: 874.
  16. Oppezzo, M. & Schwartz, D. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4): 1142-1152.