Making students spend hours online for remote classes during the COVID-19 pandemic is perfectly normal and it won’t have any effect on kids’ mental health…said no one ever.

We get it: This health crisis is a challenge for everyone, but especially for young people in school (and their parents).

Countless stories and studies have already shown us that distance learning is creating Zoom fatigue and social isolation for kids, and anxiety and depression among teens has been on the rise.

In one study, a mother said her 16-year-old son had expressed that he was starting to lose interest in going to college after graduating high school. Before the pandemic, he was passionate about math and science. But his mood started changing after schools were required to close out of fear of spreading the coronavirus.

The mother said that, after a while, instead of logging on to his computer for Zoom school week after week, he started sleeping more during the day and became more isolated from friends and family members.

That’s a scary thought.

As a working parent, what are you supposed to do? Thankfully, the creative minds in our society have used this health crisis to come up with some great solutions that have been proven to keep kids motivated and improve their academic performance despite the pandemic.

In this blog post, we’re going to spend some time talking about one of the best solutions we’ve heard about to help students fight the coronavirus blues: exposing kids to nature.

Sure, there is no higher priority during these trying times than making sure students don’t fall behind in their schoolwork. But we think we can all agree that something special happens when you connect kids with the outdoors, and that solution could be just the thing our teens need to successfully make it through another Zoom school year.

Here’s what we mean.

Distance learning and kids’ mental health

It’s a fact that the normal school environment has its benefits. When students get to interact with their teachers and their friends in person on a daily basis, we usually see a positive impact on their mental health.

But here’s the reality: before COVID-19 hit, one in five students in the U.S. was already suffering from some type of mental, emotional or behavioral disorder. When distance learning was introduced as a solution to deal with the pandemic, it simply made things worse.

What do you expect when students are expected to sit in front of a Zoom screen for six to seven hours at a time?

That’s why, as a parent, it’s really important to take a look at how much time your kid is spending in front of a computer and what that might be doing to their academic performance and social interaction with others.

How much is too much screen time?

Many kids these days already live on their screens. But it’s true that too much screen time can have adverse effects on your kid’s overall well-being.

One study found that kids who spent more than two hours a day using screens scored lower on language and thinking tests.

That same study concluded that some kids who spent more than seven hours a day stuck on a computer started to experience thinning of the brain’s cortex, the area related to critical thinking and reasoning.

We also know that many kids are continuing to stay on their screens for recreation. The obvious response would be to set limits on screen use. But, during COVID-19, that’s easier said than done.

So what’s a better alternative?

The benefits of exposing kids to nature

Getting them outside in nature, of course. When kids are able to explore the outdoors, even if it’s just for 15 to 20 minutes, it can help them feel more connected to reality.

Check out what The Atlantic recently reported about the benefits of outdoor learning:

“Multiple studies have shown that providing children with nature-based experiences reduces the frequency of ADHD symptoms in both the immediate and longer terms. Another study found that children who received science instruction outdoors learned more than those who received it only in a classroom.”

Just to recap, connecting kids with nature has been shown to have the following positive impacts on their mental health:

  • Better attention span
  • Better academic outcomes
  • Better physical fitness
  • Better emotional intelligence

So why is outdoor time still seen as a quirky alternative rather than as a central part to the learning process itself?

Several ways to get your kids outside

If you’re looking for some ideas on how to break up the Zoom school day, here are some outdoor activities that require little effort or money but have huge benefits for your kids’ mental health:

  • Take a walk outside or in the park: Did you know a 15-minute walk in the park can improve memory and attention by about 20 percent? In fact, one study found that people suffering from depression were able to improve their memory and attention span after taking a walk.
  • Go fishing: Believe it or not, fishing is more than just about catching a fish. The No. 1 reason most people like to fish is because it helps them to relax and unwind. It’s no surprise that people’s interest in fishing and boating has continued to rise during the pandemic. According to a recent poll, one in five Americans said they’re more likely to try out fishing than they were before the pandemic.
  • Go climbing: For teens who need more of a challenge, we suggest trying out climbing (safety first, of course). Our friends at Outward Bound just completed construction on a ropes course in John McLaren Park, San Francisco’s second-largest park. The ropes course consists of nine “high” climbing activities, in which participants embark on a series of challenges several feet off of the ground. On the ground, teams can tackle “low” element challenges to develop confidence, team unity and leadership skills.

As you can see, getting outside during the pandemic is a must.

Nature is healing. When you feel the air on your face and see the leaves fall, you feel grounded and you learn how to release stress. And that’s what our kids need to feel the most right now.

Perhaps, one day soon, teaching kids how to cope with stress might become a requirement that is as important as learning how to solve for X.

Until then, programs like ours will be here to provide outdoor education and help our youth use nature to discover the best versions of themselves.