How Nature Can Help Teens Sleep Better
When I was a teen, getting up for school in the morning was always hard. I don’t remember a single time that I woke up at 6am thinking “Yay! Today’s going to be a wonderful day and I’m so glad I woke up at the crack of dawn.” No, that never happened. My oldest daughter is now 14 and like most teens, she goes to bed late and would rather sleep in than wake up early, in addition to spending weekends in bed. Turns out, the neuroscience of sleep agrees with her sleep patterns, but not necessarily with the weekend part. Teens are at an important stage of their growth and development and because of this, need more sleep than adults. The average teen needs about nine hours of sleep each night to feel alert and well rested but the reality is, most teens only sleep 7.5 hours on average. Beyond the statistics, I wanted to find out if (or how) nature and the outdoors could help her sleep better.
First things first. The science of sleep is a relatively new science, but we already know a lot on how it affects us at all stages of our life and yes, teens are a special case.
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The Science of Sleep & Teen Health
The National Sleep Foundation recommends 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night for teens, which might not be that hard to get if it weren’t for what researchers call “sleep phase delay.” When they hit puberty, teens get tired up to one or two hours later than they did as children. Indeed, the teen tendency toward late sleep is so strong that scientists propose that moving back to an earlier bedtime, which we naturally do around age 20, is a sign that adolescence is ending.
In his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (you can buy it here: US | UK), UC Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker shows that early school starting times are disastrous for the mental health of teenagers. There is serious evidence, Walker suggests, for viewing lack of sleep as a factor in the onset of depression and schizophrenia.
It’s a vicious circle as teens need lots of sleep, naturally go to bed later and if they sleep in on the weekend, they’re told they’re “wasting the day.” They simply need to sleep more, but they also need to sleep better. In fact, sleeping later on weekends (also known as ‘binge sleeping’) is not the best answer to teen sleep deprivation. It throws off their internal body clock and makes it harder to start the school week afresh. What teens need is quality rest and nature can help with that.
(For more on teens and sleep, Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, has done very interesting research.)
The Science of Sleep & Nature
Let’s now look at how nature impacts our sleep as well as our health. We now know that spending time outside is as good as any medicine in terms of mental health, stress management, blood pressure regulation or injury recovery. That’s why some doctors are now giving nature prescriptions to help people get back on their feet by, literally, taking a hike in the woods. The Japanese even have a word for it, Shinrin-Yoku, which means forest-bathing. That’s your daily dose of Vitamin N, a term coined in his eponymous book by author Richard Louv, an inspiring advocate of reintroducing children to the outdoors (you can buy his book here: US | UK).
Growing research also suggests going outside and spending time in nature may also improve sleep by resetting our internal clocks to a natural sleep cycle (circadian rhythm). Exposure to natural light is the best way to wake up and tell our body that now’s the time to be awake. As natural light impacts mornings, it also impacts evenings.
In the winter, when long dark hours are the norm, we tend to live by artificial light a lot more than by natural light and that messes up our rhythms. A study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston found that exposure to artificial light before bedtime had a negative effect on sleep quality. It suppressed the production of the hormone melatonin which regulates sleep and wakefulness, and in turn effected “the body’s ability to regulate body temperature, blood pressure and glucose levels.”
Being outdoors also boosts our levels of white blood cells, and anticancer proteins. In fact, even one daily trip to a park can boost our immune activity for at least a week. Last but not least, seeing trees reduces our stress levels significantly.
How To Help Teens Get Better Sleep with Nature Time
Based on what we know about nature and health, as well as teens and sleep, we can help our teens sleep better with a few simple changes in our routines or with new adventures to try when your teens are ready.
- In the evening, ask that electronics sleep outside of the bedroom. It’s a big ask but it can be done. No more 2am buzzing on a school night, thank you.
- Open the curtains or blinds to let in bright sunlight in the morning. This helps keep your teens’ body clocks set at the right time.
- On weekends, take your teens out for a walk or any other activity in nature. It can be hiking through your local park, birding on the coast or riding up a hill on a bicycle, but as long as there are trees (something green) and fresh air, they will greatly benefit from it.
- They might be reluctant to go out, and according to Sir Robert Winston, that’s quite normal. Teens, right? However, you’re the grown-up and all you need is to follow Moosefish’s advice: Stay strong! Your kids will thank you for taking them adventuring… eventually.
- If your teens want to take a nap in the afternoon while you’re out hiking, that’s OK. Bring a blanket and stop under a beautiful tree. Enjoy the sights.
- Take your teens camping in the dead of winter. Since it’s dark between 4pm and 9am and it’s too cold to stay outside, chances are they’ll go to sleep before 8pm out of boredom in the tent and have a very long restful night. Try two (or more) nights in a row if they’ll let you.
- Organize a weekend picnic with their friends and s’mores. As uncool as being out in nature can be, roasting a marshmallow on a stick will always have the upper hand. Also, friends are likely more important in their social network than we (parents) are at this stage and it’s good to have them onboard (or even, to meet them in person). The hardest part might be to find a place where you can have a campfire.
- When going on hikes, pick spots with the worst possible cell phone coverage–provided you know you won’t get lost. Who needs to Snapchat without any coverage? Unplugging goes a long way in de-stressing in nature.
- Your teens won’t go out in nature with you? They might do it with friends as part of a challenge such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award or a Bear Grylls type camp. On the mellow end of the spectrum, even a drama camp in nature counts as outdoor time.
- Try geocaching. It works as an app on a smartphone and the treasure hunt part appeals to older kids, as well as younger ones. It might be screen-time, but it involves being active outside and requires problem-solving skills.
Last but not least, never ever give up on taking your kids outside. Even 10 minutes outside on a school day is better than sitting on a couch in front of a screen. It’s not just your child’s mental health or sleep at risk if you stay indoors all the time. It’s their health and like a plant, it needs love.
On these words, sleep tight!