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How to incorporate nature into Teletherapy: 6 Powerful benefits for Your Child and Adolescent Clients

Despite the strong research advocating for children spending more time in nature, outdoor playtime for children continues to decrease as children become less engaged with nature. While there are many understandable reasons why (concerns over safety, overcommitted schedules, etc.), children remain naturally curious about the world, and fostering this curiosity in therapy through nature play can promote their well-being in a uniquely powerful and therapeutic way.

What is nature play therapy?

Nature play therapy is the same as play therapy – just with a nature element. Play therapy is so effective because children – especially young children under the age of 13 – lack the developmental ability to talk about difficult emotions with words. Instead, they communicate their feelings and express even their most challenging thoughts through the language of play, and when nature is brought into play therapy, the effects of play therapy can be even more profound.

3 Reasons why nature play therapy is so effective.

“In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.” Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Love

  • Regularly engaging with nature is therapeutic.
    Nature can heal in a way nothing else can, but children are currently more removed from nature than ever before. At school, outdoor playtime and recess have been discontinued or else drastically reduced, and at home, tablets and electronics are now the primary sources of entertainment. This is partly because parents no longer feel safe or comfortable with letting children play outside without adult supervision – which is an understandable concern. Yet research indicates that an increased exposure to sunshine and fresh air is linked to higher rates of academic success and improved physical, psychological, and mental health.
  • Nature encourages the best kind of play.
    Research also indicates that the more creative, explorative, sensory, and messy playtime is the better, and Mother Nature provides developing children and adolescents with the ideal environment for this exact type of play. Nature play is not as restrictive as inside play, which frequently (and reasonably) comes with a few rules. Outside, however, children and teens are free to explore and be messy. 
  • Nature play promotes healthy development and overall well-being.
    Research shows that positive, consistent interactions in nature lead to developmental well-being. Specifically, emotional health, physical health, social health, motor coordination, concentration skills, creative thinking, critical thinking, conceptualization abilities, and even sleep patterns are all improved when children regularly interact with and play in nature.
  • Which begs the question: How much time do children need to spend in nature?
    It seems that just 20 minutes of nature exposure a day is enough to significantly impact well-being. In fact, one study concluded that children with ADHD concentrated better after a 20 minute walk outside, and the impact of nature exposure was roughly equivalent to the impact of two common ADHD medications.
  • Benefits of incorporating nature into play therapy for young children and teens.
    Nature is profoundly healing in ways that are both scientific and downright mystical, and when it comes to the ways nature can enhance play therapy, there is no shortage of benefits. 

Here are 6 ways nature can elevate therapy for children and teens. 

  • Nature play encourages natural self-regulation.
    Nature engagement offers a grounded, regulating experience that encourages positive feelings and creative expression. Even if physically being in nature is not an option during therapy sessions, interacting with natural elements such as leaves, pebbles, rocks, crystals, wood, flowers, plants, and pinecones can have a powerfully calming effect. 
  • Nature provides nonverbal ways to communicate.
    Nature provides non-overwhelming stimuli which provides children unique opportunities to explore their thoughts and feelings in a comfortable way.
  • Nature magnifies the impact of art therapy.
    Art therapy is one of the most researched and proven therapy techniques, and when nature is incorporated into art therapy, art and nature work together in a highly synergistic way.    
  • Nature play cultivates a positive relationship between the child and nature.
    Children and teens (especially those who have experienced some form of emotional, physical, or psychological trauma) can feel disconnected, misunderstood, and isolated at times. By incorporating positive nature-based therapy practices that allow them to positively connect with the world they live in, children and teens can develop a strong sense of belonging.
  • Nature fosters positive self-esteem and emotional wellness.
    Children are born with an innate fascination for all things unique, different, and organic, but the modern world is becoming increasingly more cookie cutter, fabricated, filtered, and rigid. Nevertheless, nature remains defiantly and awesomely diverse. In nature, no two leaves match, and everything is uniquely special. By encouraging children to interact with nature in positive ways, you can instill in them the knowledge that they, like the beauty of nature, are naturally and exquisitely unique.
  • Provides a calming and mindful experience for the child.
    Nature-based activities, such as painting rocks or tracing leaves, requires focus and attention to detail. Through nature activities, children can learn mindfulness and relaxation techniques that can help reduce anxiety and stress.

11 Ways to incorporate nature play therapy into your therapy practice.

  • Create nature puppets. Nature puppets can create distance for painful emotions to be communicated and processed, and when children project their thoughts and feelings onto the nature puppet, they can learn and practice different coping skills in ways that match their developmental stage.  Hopscotch providers have access to an amazing intervention library, which includes a section on how to create nature puppets developed by Rose LaPiere, LPC, RPT-S, ACS, EMDRIA Certified Consultant.
  • Design nature mandalas. Humans have been creating nature mandalas since the dawn of time. Nature mandalas are beautiful and creating them is a wonderful example of nature play that is beneficial for clients of any age. Simply collect nature elements such as rocks, petals, leaves, etc. and lay the elements out in a circular pattern.
  • Paint rocks and/or leaves. 
  • Create an art journal with nature elements. Art journaling is trending in a major way currently thanks to the meditative way it allows creators to express themselves. While this activity is great for clients of any age, it is currently very popular with creative teenagers who are working through difficult feelings and emotions.

    Learn more
  • Trace a leaf on paper or with a finger while taking mindful breaths.
  • Create a nature inspired sand tray for therapy intervention. Get creative and incorporate different trays/boxes for other nature elements, such as tiny pebbles, jasmine rice, dirt, lentils, grass seeds, etc.
  • Color in a nature coloring book.
  • Play I-Spy-Nature or nature hide and seek.
  • Plant seeds. For example, playing sunflower seeds and watching them grow over time can be a wonderful experience for a child and adolescent. Therapists can incorporate ideas about growth, change, and  nurture into those sessions. Tip: Soaking the sunflower seed in room temperature water first for at least one hour before potting will help the seed germinate successfully.
  • Go on a nature treasure hunt in the virtual playroom or create a virtual shared screen that has nature elements.  Hopscotch providers have access to an amazing intervention library, which includes a section on how to create your Hopscotch virtual playroom developed by Dr. Rachel Altvater.
  • Create and explore patterns with a Zen Garden. 


Planning for Teletherapy Sessions

For virtual child play therapists, you will likely need to contact parents in advance to plan accordingly.  It is advisable to communicate with parents beforehand your goals for these sessions, what it will involve, and make suitable arrangements.  You’ll want to solicit input from parents as to their comfort levels and identify appropriate spaces for incorporating natural elements into therapy sessions, such as using sand, dirt, paint, etc. . Providing some courtesy preparation reminders is also a good idea. In case something is forgotten, be prepared with a nature-themed play therapy backup plan, such as with a digital sand tray via shared screen, Play Doh, Legos, or a whiteboard.

How to encourage parent/child nature play between sessions.

As is so often the case, caregivers have tremendous power to encourage nature play in between sessions, however, be sure to respect values and limitations. Not everyone has access to safe nature areas for families, and the availability of supervision may also be a concern. Be ready to do the thinking for parents and have a list of nature play activities ready to provide them with, such as rock painting, seed growing, hiking, a nature treasure hunt, etc. Remind caregivers that nature experiences don’t need to be extravagant, and spending time together outside in a local green space or even in the backyard can be just as beneficial. 

Discover more about the power of nature play therapy, and learn how to incorporate this expression of play therapy with your clients: Nature-Based Play and Expressive Therapies: Interventions for Working with Children, Teens, and Families 1st Edition

Enjoy exclusive Hopscotch training content.

Are you part of Hopscotch’s exclusive group of child therapists? If so, be sure to watch the intervention videos mentioned in this article and located in the Hopsoctch Provider Resource Center. You’ll find the Nature Puppets intervention developed  by Rose LaPiere, LPC, RPT-S, ACS, EMDRIA, Certified Consultant and the How to Create Your Hopscotch Virtual Playroom intervention developed by Dr. Rachel Altvater.
(Go to the Provider Resource Center and search within the Intervention Library.

Not a provider with Hopscotch? Learn more about joining our community here.