Smarter, Happier, Healthier

Smarter, Happier, Healthier: Connecting with Your Inner Child

By: Julia Barrera, WYP Intern

It was a cool Wednesday afternoon and the campus of UCSB was filled with golden light as the sun gave way to dusk. My white Filas crunched on the gravel path along the lagoon behind the university center. It was my first outing in the past few days since I had moved back to Santa Barbara, and I huffed a little as I made my way to a large green lawn overlooking the murky water; I was out of shape. Plopping unceremoniously on a towel under a massive tree, I hugged my knees and gazed out onto the horizon, and began my first hour on the clock for my WYP internship, taking in the sounds and smells of marshland. 

When I first received WYP’s offer for a six-month position and began doing research on the organization, I came across the same tagline numerous times: “Children in nature are smarter, healthier, and happier.” It’s a grand statement, but digging deeper, you could see it was backed by thousands of research studies on nature connection. 

The Research

The facts are extremely compelling. Researchers have found that outdoor education leads to “positive shifts…in perseverance, problem-solving, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, and resilience” as well as improved standardized test scores and increased graduation rates. Connecting with nature means decreasing stress, as well as heart rate and blood pressure; there are amazing reductions in anxiety, depression, and fatigue, nature being both a physical and mental healer. These benefits are needed more than ever, as the U.S. Department of Education has sounded the alarm on increased mental health struggles among up to 80% of school-age youth. Every study here is persuasive, no doubt. Indeed, these statistics and articles are a large reason why I decided to work with WYP in the first place. But they only tell half the story. 

My Experience

When I first began meeting with my mentors and familiarizing myself with WYP, I believed these facts almost abstractly. Looking over my internship description, I could see that many of my tasks were behind a computer, being involved in community relations and development.

But then, my first week, I was tasked with spending one hour in nature as a part of my staff training. Shut in my tiny IV apartment, I took the assignment in stride and made my way down to the UCSB lagoon, not having the highest expectations for my time there.

Within the first five minutes, I counted seven species of birds. Intrigued, I looked a little harder, scanning the shore for wildlife. There seemed to be so much going on in and out of the water. A white heron waded slowly in the shallows, algae and moss sticking to its feet. Ducks glided by, heads occasionally dipping under the water to throw droplets over their speckled brown backs. Sandpipers scuttled about the muddy edges of the lagoon in the prowl for invertebrates. All at once, I was able to slow down and observe all that was around me. I found relaxation gazing at the murky water dappled with the last rays of sunshine coming from the sunset over the ocean.

Mind occupied with the sights, smells, and sounds of nature, I let go of Week 1 anxiety and enjoyed sitting there on the grass. I could feel my heart rate slow and I eventually laid down and stared up at the leaves of the tree I was sitting under. My time at the lagoon allowed me to sincerely reflect on my feelings and embrace a kind of nostalgia for the outdoors that I hadn’t experienced since I was a child.

Research studies are no substitute for experiencing the real thing. Just that one hour out in nature was enough to prove that nature has the capacity to transform both body and mind. Now being part of volunteer staff out on program, I can see just how important outdoor play is to 2nd-5th graders I meet every week.

I have seen the shyest of kids burst out of their shell running across the sand or hiking up a sloping hill.

I have seen the loudest of kids take careful steps to observe animals in the wild, crouch under bushes to play hide and seek, and quietly reflect while wading in a creek.

I have also never felt more alive; when I am out in nature, I feel I can reset, and come back to my daily life with a fresh perspective.

When we are in nature, we let go of what weighs us down, what keeps us from embracing that true freedom and childhood innocence that wilderness offers, and that, ultimately, makes us smarter, healthier, and happier.

So how can we achieve this goal of reconnecting with our inner child?

  • The first step is simple, go outside! And while you think you might not live near “nature,” just going outdoors can be healing in itself; nature does not always have to mean national parks.
  • Make it a family affair, especially if you have kids.
  • Make space and time to simply reflect and explore.
  • Engage your five senses; you’ll be surprised by what you find. The common phrase that is used is “seeing is believing,” but I like to think that “feeling is believing,” so the next time you take a journey outside, check in with yourself. How does your body feel? Your mind?

I guarantee that you’ll discover the limitless healing potential the outdoors can offer you in just a short time.

About the author

Julia Barrera (they/she) is a 4th-year Feminist Studies major and Professional Writing minor with an emphasis in Civic Engagement at UCSB. They currently serve as Wilderness Youth Project’s community relations intern, writing creative and promotional content for WYP. They also get to spend every Wednesday mentoring 2nd-5th graders at WYP’s Bridge to Nature after-school program at El Centro SB.