Nature is currently receiving a surge of media attention as an antidote to the emotional challenges of the current COVID-19 crisis. It is good news in a time of alarming headlines. The rich sensory experiences nature provides are proven to help in the recovery from stress. A 2020 literature review of studies determined that just 120 minutes of nature exposure a week contributes to improved wellbeing. Wilderness immersions are not required to receive the benefits. Research has found that nearby nature in schoolyards and neighborhoods promotes emotional resilience. Even window views of trees and green landscapes buffer against the ill-effects of stress.

As the pandemic has triggered a historic rise in mental health problems, now more than ever we need restorative green spaces to invite play and nature connection. A University of Pennsylvania study found that “greening” urban lots reduces rates of depression in urban neighborhoods. Adding benches, inviting signage and small gardens can transform small underused urban areas into destinations for “green microbreaks” to boost mood and reduce mental fatigue. Working to improve green areas is a timely public health project given the relative ease of maintaining social distance outdoors.

With extended school closures and play equipment off-limits due to COVID-19 risk, it is particularly important to create neighborhood play areas that give children outlets for creativity and exploration. Providing a collection of rocks painted to look like animals or piles of branches for fort building is a start to welcoming children and families into green areas. Rotating signage suggesting running games or encouraging a scavenger hunt may encourage new engagement with open lawns. The time and minimal expense needed to create special outdoor play spaces is worth the investment not only for the joy they provide. Nature play creates a foundation for academic success by fostering stronger attentional focus, increased creativity, and emotional self-regulation.

Over the last two decades, play has steadily declined as childhood has moved indoors and in front of screens. COVID-19 has exacerbated this trend with worsening consequences for children’s wellbeing. In an effort to protect time for play in childhood, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has long declared play an international human right. Every community must assess whether children’s right to play is adequately protected through access to quality neighborhood play spaces and allocation of time for child-directed play. Given the disparities in access to play spaces and green areas in our community, counteractive efforts are critically important in helping all children to thrive.

Locally, several organizations are working to create and maintain restorative natural spaces, outdoor play areas, and greenways that are the building blocks for public health. The efforts of the Piedmont Environmental Council, Albemarle County and Charlottesville Parks and Recreation departments, Ivy Creek Natural Area, Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center, Tree Stewards, The Grove, McIntire Botanical Garden and Wildrock are essential in this time of rising mental health needs.

Nature connection has always helped people find solace, inspiration and joy in hard times. COVID-19 has helped us to see how much we need our community green spaces and the organizations that promote and protect them. In the pandemic recovery and rebuilding period ahead, green spaces must be fully appreciated as critical social determinants of health.

Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, is founder and executive director of Wildrock, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting nature play for health and happiness. During the pandemic, Wildrock has offered timed trail walks at its Blue Ridge Foothills Nature Play and Discover Center. Wildrock works collaboratively with local nonprofits and public schools to create play zones in city schoolyards and underused urban greenspaces. Drawing on her experience as a psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery, Carolyn frequently presents on topics related to mental wellness and nature connection.