Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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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 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.)
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.
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.
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!