Design a site like this with
Get started

Healing Outside: Examining Nature’s Therapeutic Benefits for Trauma-Affected Families

When I first became a licensed foster parent, I assumed I would take care of a kid or two, return them to their family, then accept a couple more. I figured this cycle would continue indefinitely, or until my life circumstances changed. Maybe I would move to a different state or my license would expire or my job would require too much overtime or I simply wouldn’t want to do it any longer. However it happened, I saw an end in sight, after I had done what I could to help some local families through a hard time. I did not anticipate my first “placement” (what they call a kid or group of kids when they move into a foster home) becoming permanent. I did not expect to instantly become a mom of three. 

When my life changed quickly, I immediately searched for an outlet. I needed something I could do with my kids that was cheap, accessible, and would allow us to release our confusing emotions. Hiking met each of these requirements, plus it was right on the other side of our door. We started small: paved paths in our local parks, long bridges, strolls around the neighborhood, walks through the zoo. I either wore my youngest and pushed my middle in a stroller while my oldest complained about walking, or I brought our double stroller. Slowly, our mileage increased and we sought more difficult trails, more interesting trails, longer trails, trails which were further away, and trails we heard other people talking about. Hiking became a way to challenge ourselves, to build confidence, to connect with each other, and to have fun. 

We are now a hiking-obsessed family, and the kids have experienced hundreds of miles and lots and lots of shoes. They have climbed beautiful mountains. They have backpacked for weeks at a time. They have encouraged adult hikers who seemed too tired to continue. They have set up camp when I was too exhausted to help. Do I think my kids are naturally great hikers? No! I believe they have put in hard work and are reaping the benefits. I also believe hiking – and time spent outdoors in general – has benefitted them in a special way because of their past experiences, both before they joined my family and ever since. The changes I have noticed in my kids’ behaviors and attitudes motivated me to examine the effect outdoor-time can have on kids from hard places1.

In order to get a sense of how outside time affects kids from these backgrounds, I wanted to get firsthand information from the people “in the trenches” with these kids, specifically therapists and foster/adoptive parents. These are the people who experience the highs and lows alongside trauma-affected kids, so I figured I should start by talking to them. While many of them preferred not to contribute quotes or reveal their identities, I’m grateful to everyone who spent time sharing their thoughts with me. This stuff is hard to talk about and nobody wants to feel like they’re being interrogated. 

After conducting my interviews, I read up on the science behind spending time in nature. I was surprised by the amount of research I found on the subject. Most of the information reinforced my assumptions: outdoor experiences are deeply healing and can make kids happier, more grounded, and more resilient. Some of the resources I found helpful are linked in the footnotes or at the end of this article if you’re interested in further reading. My final step was actually spending time with kids from hard places (and some of their families) outside. We took day hikes in our local forest, visited parks, played in streams, searched for salamanders, built mud castles, swam in a lake, ate s’mores, and found glow worms. I camped overnight with a few different kids and their families, and the experiences we had were unforgettable, but the growth and change I got to witness in the kids was the best part. Here’s how it all went down. 

Dr. Karyn Purvis, one of the authors of The Connected Child (2007), refers to kids with traumatic pasts as “kids from hard places”. This term is used by many therapists.

Interviewing Trauma-Affected Individuals and Families

In order to gather different perspectives of outdoor time as it relates to kids from foster care, kinship care2, or adoption, I reached out to a network of interconnected people. Some of them I knew personally, and others I only connected with via social media: foster parents, adoptive parents, adoptees, mental health professionals, teachers, and social workers. I asked them invasive questions, often not expecting a response. 

Working with kids from hard places is difficult, and it is often a lonely journey because so many daily experiences are considered abnormal to “normal” families. “The fresh air builds stronger lungs and the demand to be imaginative brings joy,” said one foster mom. “When children must be bored without the instant gratification of television and video games, a new intelligence of kindness is fostered”. She has witnessed many “moments of wonder” occur in her placements, and she makes a conscious effort to prioritize outdoor time as a tool for connection. She has seen “bodies heal and tempers cool” on hikes and camping trips. 

Paris Silvestri, a therapist I interviewed noted that time outdoors “teaches confidence, breathing (so vital), resilience (super important for children), and critical thinking skills which can sometimes becomecompromised with folks who have complex trauma (a common occurrence for children in foster or adoptive care)”. In her own life, she said she has become a more confident version of herself since making the outdoors a priority. She said she even feels more confident in her identity. Silvestri added, she can only see how outdoor time would help children who need support with identity, confidence, attachment, or emotional regulation. 

Outdoor play has also been linked to treating ADHD, among other mental health issues3. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, both of which can cause individuals with traumatic pasts to act out4.

The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study, originally conducted from 1995 to 1997 in California, measures how negative events experienced during childhood have a lasting impact on health as a person ages5. Children in the foster care system, as well as children who are adopted, have often experienced negative events: domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug use, neglect, food scarcity, multiple moves between unstable living situations, etc. In fact, over half (51%) of children involved with the child welfare system have experienced four or more ACEs, compared to 13% of the general child population6. Because kids “in the system” often have more ACEs, their health is threatened: they are at least five times more likely to have anxiety, depression, and/or behavioral problems than children outside of foster care7. 

In light of the difficulties faced by these kids and their caregivers, the importance of finding a therapeutic outlet is obvious8. One of the foster/adoptive mothers I spoke with said that connecting with her kids is easier on the trail. “As a family, we have had conversations that bring tears and laughter. I get to know my kids and learn what scares them, what they dream of…” 

As an adoptive mother, I know this to be true from my own experiences. Even when our outdoor adventures go awry (picture soaked down jackets and temperatures hovering near freezing, or a car broken down on a gravel road halfway up a mountain, or running out of food on day three of a four-day backpacking trip, or being stranded on the Appalachian Trail and hitchhiking into town), backcountry stress wears differently on my kids than at-home stress. My kids are more open and honest, brave, confident, and adventurous when we are outside together. Slowly but surely, I have seen those qualities sneak into their everyday actions back home as well. 

In a 2003 study conducted by Nancy M. Wells and Gary W. Evans, “Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children”, Wells and Evans suggested a correlation between nature (potted plants, backyards, and green views outside the window) and children’s abilities to handle stressful events9. They found that, when kids are exposed to outdoor spaces, they are better able to endure painful experiences during childhood. Spending time in nature may enable children to think more clearly and cope more effectively with life stress. “Greater cognitive clarity may enable children to seek out activities or resources to fortify themselves against life stress as well as enable them to resist the inclination to react to certain stressors…” 10

One of the foster/adoptive moms I interviewed remarked that her family is divided too easily by the outside world. “[Hiking/outdoor time] is a private oasis where we can forget that we are not biologically related” she said. “Where we are just family.” 11 This resonates deeply with me. I am a mama who looks nothing like her daughters, and I’m constantly reminded of this fact by strangers everywhere we go. When we are out hiking, backpacking, or camping, we get fewer glares/strange looks/awkward questions, and this is a relief to all of us. 

One therapist I interviewed had spent time working in an outdoor setting with children and teenagers in foster care. She noticed that these kids became more relaxed the more time they spent outside. “They would have… those ‘holy crap, I can’t believe I just did that!’ moments…” she said. “These experiences boosted their self-efficacy and led to them being more confident in future endeavors.” It is impossible to understate the value of building children’s confidence, particularly children who have experienced trauma early on.

2 Kinship care is when children are cared for by relatives or, in some states, close family friends instead of being sent to a foster home.
3 Frances E. Kuo, PhD, and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD. “A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence from a National Study.”
Mark B. Powers, Gordon J. G. Asmundson, and Jasper A. J. Smits, “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: The State-of-the Science” Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Vol. 44, Issue 4, 2015.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
6 Turney, K. and Wildeman, C. (2016). “Mental and Physical Health of Children in Foster Care.” Pediatrics, 138 (5).
Stambaugh, L.F., Ringeisen, H., Casanueva, C.C., Tueller, S., Smith, K. E., and Dolan, M. (2013). “Adverse childhood experiences in National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being” (OPRE Report #2013-26). Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults”
Nancy M. Wells and Gary W. Evans, “Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children.” Environment and Behavior, Vol. 35, No. 3, May 2003: 311-330.
10 Wells and Evans, 325.
11  Kaitlin Musser

Interacting with Trauma-Affected Individuals and Families in the Outdoors 

My project didn’t just consist of information gathering though. I also went hiking and camping with the groups I was interviewing. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t merely gathering stories and advice, but also doing life with these people. It is one thing to have a conversation about outdoor experiences, and it is a different thing entirely to spend 36 hours swatting mosquitoes with another family. 

Over a six-month period, I took two overnight camping trips and seven day-hikes with kids from hard places, (not including the hiking and camping I did with just my own kids). During these experiences, I allowed our conversations to flow organically. My intent was never to “interview” kids as part of this project, because the last thing they need is to feel like test subjects. 

Sometimes, the subject of trauma-informed outdoor play came up. One teenaged boy remarked that he wasn’t as angry in the woods, because all of his energy was focused on hiking. One preteen girl said she found it easier to get along with her sisters because it was quiet and she wasn’t having to fight over what to do. Some of our guests pointed out that my kids were capable of impressive things: setting up tents, building campfires, navigating with a map and compass, carrying heavy packs, covering long miles. These compliments meant a lot to my kids, even though these skills are normal at this point. Their confidence soared once they realized people saw them as capable. One preteen boy stopped at every millipede he passed and examined it closely. He said he was interested in learning more about insects. I watched him stare silently at a millipede for longer than I’d ever seen him stand still before. 

On one of our hikes, we took a long break at a stream. One of the boys caught a baby salamander and excitedly showed it around. My kids broke the news to him about how handling wildlife is not a good idea, specifically amphibians because they can absorb harmful residue from our hands through their skin. I made sure this information was presented in an unaggressive way. Later that day, the boy told me he had been thinking about the salamander and what it might have felt as it was being picked up. He said he wouldn’t make that mistake again. His empathy for the little salamander made me smile. 

One of the girls we hiked with had been struggling with behavior issues, which is not abnormal in the trauma-informed parenting world. Her mother remarked that much of the difficulty faded away when they were outside together. Instead of petty arguments or power struggles like they would be facing at home, they were able to relax and enjoy their time in the woods. 

I’m deeply grateful that I had the opportunity to spend time with these precious people, and forever thankful for their openness. I know it is a blessing to have such an inclusive community of people around me, and I try not to take it for granted. I didn’t realize how enjoyable it would be to share my love of outdoor time with other people, because I usually adventure with my kids only. Sharing the trails, campsites, rivers, and views with these families was a joy for me.

Practical Applications 

When I began this project, I said that I would consider it a success if it encouraged even just one family to seek outdoor experiences for their therapeutic benefit. I still hold this hope in my heart! But I know that the adults who love these kids sometimes feel lost – and, while encouraging a foster parent to take their kids hiking is great, actually enabling a foster parent to take their kids hiking would be much better. I want to offer practical suggestions which might make it easier to get these kids outside now that we have established that outdoor time can profoundly benefit them. 

There are many reasons why caregivers might hesitate to take their trauma-affected kids hiking, camping, backpacking, canoeing, rock climbing, or on other outdoor adventures. Among the barriers which often prevent these families from experiencing the outdoors are travel restrictions for kids in the child welfare system, fear of triggers, birth parents’ desires, not having the proper gear, and fear of intervention from strangers. (Child Protective Services showed up on the Appalachian Trail in 2018 due to a report that a family of thru-hikers were endangering their kids.) 

In light of these obstacles, getting outside can seem like a big, scary challenge that is better left alone. This is why it is important to start small. Very, very small. Parking-further-away-from-the-grocery-store-entrance small. Taking-a-blanket-outside-and-eating-dinner-in-the-grass small.  Researching-your-local-parks-and-deciding-to-visit-one-each-month small. 

Starting small means setting attainable goals, getting your kids on board with them (let them choose your parking spot, help set up your picnic dinner, or decide which park to visit), and celebrating all of your victories. 

Speaking of celebrating your victories, I must warn you: it is easy to get sucked into the trap of thinking your adventures aren’t adventurous enough. I’ve been there, and it’s an ugly place to be. There are different seasons of life, and that’s okay. At certain times, an adventure looks like playing with my kids on the front porch. At other times, we’re crushing big miles on a long trail.  The “little” adventures far outnumber the “big” ones, and I predict that most of the memories are going to come from the everyday experiences. So I hope you don’t let a fear of not-being-awesome-enough hold you back. Hear this: you are awesome no matter what. 

I’ve included a few links at the end to help you get started. They include really cool ideas that I could’ve never come up with on my own, like nature-based crafts and ways to motivate kids to hike. There are groups out there who organize hang-outs for parents with their kids, and although I’ve never participated in this kind of thing, I can understand how great of an idea it is. If making friends is your thing, I highly recommend you look into this. 

The main thing I’ve learned through conducting this project is that while trauma is multifaceted and murky and often kept private, when it is shared, there is a beautiful connection and that connection can bring about a little bit of healing. Like how they say a burden shared is a burden lifted or lighter or whatever. When your family story is permeated by trauma, it is natural to keep that private. And this is a good instinct, because a kid’s story should never be blasted out to strangers, especially without their consent. But even without sharing intimate details, there is a lot of connection that can happen if we open up to each other. 

If you know a foster/kinship/adoptive family, please help them get outside. If you are a foster/kinship/adoptive family, please get outside. It’s right on the other side of your door. 

Further reading

National Wildlife Federation’s “Be Out There” booklet, summarizing the shift in childhood experiences over the past few decades, benefits of outdoor play, and suggestions to help caregivers get their kids outside. 

Straightforward article outlining benefits of outside time in children. There are many of these lists out there, but this one is abnormally succinct. 

List of ideas for getting children outside! This is an awesome list, and many are doable whether you live in a big city or rural area and regardless of your kids’ ages. 

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Workman Publishing Company: 2005. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: