On a sunny spring day, Ruth Nazarian led a group of 24 second graders to a small acacia grove at their San Diego elementary school. When the children were seated with their eyes closed, Nazarian asked the group a series of questions meant to tune them into their senses:
Bring your attention to the skin on your face; what do you feel? Can you find a sound that’s far away? Can you find a sound that’s nearby? What do you smell? Gently open your eyes; what colors do you see?
“When you really pay attention to nature with kids, so many ordinary things become magical,” says Nazarian, an elementary school teacher for more than 25 years and certified forest therapy guide.
Nazarian is part of a growing group who have discovered the practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, which was officially recognized by the Japanese government in the 1980s and has since expanded into more than 60 certified trails. It’s different from hiking, which is about reaching a destination, or taking a nature walk, which focuses on identifying plants and animals. Forest bathing encourages participants to slowly and deliberately engage with nature. (These five destinations are perfect for forest bathing.)
And the great news is you can try this nature-based practice no matter where you live—and it has real physical and mental health benefits for kids.
The benefits of forest bathing
Forest bathing is all about soaking in your surroundings and practicing mindfulness while in nature, whether it’s your backyard, local park, or an actual forest. And a growing body of research shows this approach to nature has health benefits ranging from better sleep to reductions in the stress hormone cortisol.
This may be because forest bathing essentially combines the benefits of meditation with the benefits of being outside in nature. For example, forest bathing and meditation are both mindfulness practices that help you become fully engaged in the present moment. Studies show that cultivating mindfulness can boost memory and focus, promote empathy, reduce stress, and improve attention and behavior in school settings.
But traditional meditation can be challenging, especially for younger kids who have trouble sitting still. “Forest bathing activities pull us into the present moment without needing to be still,” Nazarian explains. “This helps children become more aware of their bodies. As they learn to be aware of how their body feels, they start to recognize how their bodies react to emotions as well. It’s a valuable strategy to self-soothe and manage stress.”
The other advantage of forest bathing: It gets kids outside and into green spaces. Hundreds of studies have investigated the positive impacts of nature on children’s physical, mental, and emotional health and development—ranging from boosting kids’ IQ to improving mental health.
“There is something about being in the natural world that improves cognitive development and physical and mental health,” says Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children and Nature Network and author of several books, including Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. “Specifically, the research strongly suggests time in nature can help children learn to build confidence, teach them to calm themselves, improve focus, decrease symptoms of ADD, improve creativity, and reduce stress.”
A beginner’s guide
Ready to try forest bathing with your kids? Here are a few guidelines to get you started.
Be flexible. Helene Gibbons, a forest-bathing guide in Saranac Lake, New York, has adapted many of her practices into five- to 15-minute breaks that teachers can do with children throughout the day. “It’s not always realistic to do an hour-long forest-bathing walk with kids,” she says.
Shortening the amount of time you focus on a forest-bathing activity is one way to keep it loose, particularly for younger children. Giving them permission to talk and move around, regardless of the activity, is another way to be more flexible.
“We call the activities ‘invitations’ because you’re always welcome to adapt them,” Gibbons says. “Kids need autonomy to make decisions for themselves. They like to have that freedom."
Draw attention to the sensory experience. Using your senses is all about noticing your surroundings, being alert, and being present—things that meditation does as well, says Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and author of Grow Wild: The Whole-Child, Whole-Family, Nature-Rich Guide to Moving More.
“When you’re listening for all the nature sounds you can hear, you’re focused on something that’s not the jibber jabber in your own head,” she says.
Ask questions that encourage children to focus on their senses. What does the grass feel like? What shapes do you see? What do the pine needles smell like?
Turn it into a game. These activities help provide a fun, loose structure that encourages children to be more mindful of their natural surroundings:
Nazarian uses a rope or hula hoop to create a circle in the grass and encourages children to explore the small area with a magnifying glass. (Check out these kid-friendly instructions.)
In the What’s in Motion game, Nazarian asks kids to walk very slowly and notice what’s in motion while they’re in motion. Often they’ll notice big movements like birds, then smaller ones like ants. “One time a breeze came through and dispersed hundreds of helicopter seeds,” she says. “We had been stepping on them for weeks, but paying attention to them floating above our heads was delightful.”
Bowman suggests going on a tea walk and looking for ingredients like pine or fir needles, lemon grass, or mint that could be used to make herbal tea.
In the Camera Game, one kid is the photographer, and the other is the camera. The camera closes his or her eyes, and the photographer guides the camera to a natural scene like a tree trunk. When the photographer signals, the camera opens his or her eyes and captures as much detail of the scene as possible. Depending on the age of your child, encourage them to write about or draw what they see.
Lie on your back, watch the clouds float by and see what shapes and images you see.
For a rainy-day activity, Gibbons suggests sitting by an open window and listening to the rain for a few minutes. Then have kids draw a picture of how they feel.