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Nature-Based Play Therapy as a Path to Healing for Childhood Trauma

September 26, 2022

For perhaps many of us, we can recall fond spots in our backyards or neighbourhood parks that held special meaning to us as children, and offered us refuge and respite. A safe space to play. A place where we could feel at home, and even, like we belonged. Maybe it was a favorite tree to sit under during recess, or a local park that had many nooks and crannies to explore. For me, some of my favourite moments as a child were spending time playing with my best friend under the neighbourhood willow tree, pretending we were fairies or witches making special brews and potions. 

Places in nature can serve as safe havens, particularly for children experiencing traumatic events in their lives. In Nature-Based Play Therapy, the child’s relationship with nature is integrated into the therapeutic process alongside the interaction with the therapist. Spots in nature can serve as places of escape for children trying to cope with acute crises, such as earthquakes, or chronic stressors like living in poverty. Children who had the means and opportunity to connect with nature during the period of social isolation from COVID-19 lockdowns had fewer mental health struggles than children who were not afforded the same opportunity for nature-based play, even after accounting for socioeconomic status. Nature-based play can function as a powerful equalizer, but disparities in ease of access to natural settings like parks, particularly for communities of colour and low-income families, can deprive children from reaping the social and health benefits nature provides, making inclusion to such spaces a pertinent environmental justice issue. 

The development of a child’s brain, as well as their immune system, is experience-dependent. When a child experiences trauma, it influences how structures of the brain develop – most notably the hippocampus and the amygdala – as the child attempts to cope with adverse circumstances. These structures are part of the limbic system, an area of the brain involved in memory and emotional regulation, with the hippocampus largely implicated with learning and forming memories, and the amygdala with attaching salient emotions to those memories, including fear and anxiety. 

These resulting brain adaptations can put a child at risk for mental health problems in the future, what is referred to as Latent Vulnerability. Behaviours that were once adaptive later become maladaptive when the initial threat is removed and the child returns to a safe and secure environment. The latent effects become visible as the child navigates a changing landscape, employing strategies and tools that they learned to use under very different circumstances. Children may exhibit hypervigilance to perceived stressors. They may struggle with interpersonal relationships and misattribute cues in their social environment, often resulting in alienation and isolation from peer groups over time, a process known as social thinning.

While exposure to trauma in early childhood can lead to a cascade of negative health outcomes, behaviour is not fixed or  predetermined, and there are many pathways towards recovery that allow children to thrive and prosper. Having supportive relationships, whether that be a parent, grandparent, teacher, therapist, or other caring, responsive adult, is a strong protective and supportive factor that can set children on a road towards positive growth and healing. The relationship a child forges with an emotionally attuned therapist in play therapy, and the safe and secure space, or holding environment, the playroom provides, allows the child to express difficult and often unmanageable feelings through an activity that already feels comfortable and natural to them: play. When nature is integrated into this process, it can act as another kind of supportive co-facilitator, where materials in the natural landscape become objects which the child can manipulate and engage with, just as they would with toys inside.

Nature-based interventions can help create pathways towards resilience for children, supporting emotion regulation skills, family connections, and building stability through a connection to place. Some clinicians describe how nature can be a metaphor for resilience, allowing clients to reframe their own struggles through the lens of nature’s own recovery and regrowth following destruction caused by wildfires, floods, or other natural disasters. Many writers recall how immersion into the natural landscape was a source of comfort during painful moments in their childhoods, and how as adults, writing about nature and revisiting those familiar places they were accustomed to, helps them to reflect on the trauma they experienced when they were children. 

There are many cross-cultural examples of how nature-based experiences can benefit children with a wide range of needs. Children living in South Korea who grew up in foster care participated in a forest healing program that helped strengthen interpersonal relationship skills like empathy, sensitivity, and openness to others over a three-year period. Children in Ireland experiencing socioeconomic exclusion made gains in their social-emotional development from the responsibility of caring for small animals at school. Children with autism have benefited from sensory gardens like the one in Durant Nature Preserve in North Carolina, and trails in parks such as  The Autism Nature Trail in upstate New York. 

And children don’t need to play in large areas of green space to be able to benefit from the natural world. There are countless ways for children to become little explorers or pioneers and make strides in their emotional and mental well-being. Nature-based play therapy can be taken indoors if perhaps there is limited green space available, or physical concerns like allergies are present, where children can still benefit from activities like playing with natural materials, listening to nature sounds, and tending to plants on a windowsill. The National Wildlife Federation and the National Learning Initiative describe how every child’s home can already function as a nature-play space and provide at-home examples of how to create nature settings for kids and their families. It is important to continue to re-imagine how children can engage with nature during play so that no child is deprived of the physical and mental health benefits that nature provides.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of SCSC.

Photo by Allison Wopata on Unsplash