Everyday Heroes: Rooted in Nature

Mya Zavaleta is Leveraging Nature as a Co-Therapist to Help Youth Deal with Mental and Behavioral Health Challenges

By Sara Tiano

When Mya Zavaleta was growing up in her Connecticut adoptive home, she turned to the night sky to feel a sense of closeness with her birth family thousands of miles away. “Even though we’re not together, we could be looking up at the same stars and the same moon,” she said. “It’s something so small, but really powerful.”

Born into poverty and civil war in El Salvador, Zavaleta is among thousands of children called “deseparacidos” — the disappeared — who were separated from their families as a result of the war.

Zavaleta’s mother left her and her seven siblings, splitting them up between their two grandmothers, so she could travel out of the country to find work. But after suffering abuse and neglect at their grandmother’s, she and her sisters went to the authorities for help. She was brought to an orphanage in El Salvador where she lived for two years before being adopted by an American-Italian single mother, and moving to Connecticut at age 5.

Trauma continued to shape her life after adoption. Despite experiencing abuse in the home, she did have a safe adult in her adoptive grandmother who played a large role in her upbringing and sparked her love for nature with summers spent picking blueberries together and playing outdoors for hours on end.

But her deep connection to nature developed while studying at Bates College, a small school in Lewiston, Maine, where many of her peers were avid hikers and campers, inspiring her to immerse herself in the local wilderness.

She soon found herself feeling not just the physical and mental benefits of spending time outdoors, but also noticing a growing bond with Mother Nature — a force she said she can turn to daily to feel nurtured and supported.

The solace she found in her night sky ritual planted a seed of seeing the natural world as a source of comfort, healing and connectedness. Decades later, that has blossomed into a career as a nature occupational therapist for children and teens struggling with both social/emotional and developmental challenges.

Zavaleta is one of a burgeoning group of health professionals bringing their sessions outdoors and leveraging nature as a co-therapist in their work to help young people deal with developmental delays or mental and behavioral health challenges. In 2021, she founded Rooted Kids’ Occupational Therapy in San Luis Obispo, California, providing private and group sessions for children and parents. Zavaleta usually works with clients for between six months and two years.

Occupational therapy aims to simultaneously treat both mental and physical health issues, with the goal of helping people meaningfully participate in the occupations — or roles in life — that are important to them. These roles can include a person’s job, hobbies, social communities and relationships.

For children, Zavaleta said, their “occupations” include being learners, playing, being social, connecting as a sibling and son or daughter. Her clients come to her for help when they’re struggling in these key areas of their lives.

“Something is getting in the way of them being able to fulfill their occupation or their role with ease, with joy,” Zavaleta said. “My job is to assess what is getting in the way and how to creatively problem-solve to reduce those barriers.”

Most of Rooted Kids’ clients are adopted or in foster care, have anxiety, ADHD, autism or sensory processing disorders, or are facing developmental delays that impact their education. Research shows that many of these conditions affect children in foster care at a higher rate than the general child population.

Oftentimes her clients find her via word of mouth or through referrals from pediatricians or child psychologists. She also works with several adoption agencies to provide educational sessions for parents and caregivers of children with foster care backgrounds.

Supporting children to socialize and connect is especially important for adoptees like herself, Zavaleta said, “because connection is so hard for many of us.”

And helping them develop a connection with nature can strengthen their ability to connect with themselves and others.

“When children are in the child welfare system, there is a strong sense of feeling ungrounded, alone, abandoned and impermanent,” Zavaleta said. “Those feelings manifest themselves as dysregulation in many kids, which means they have difficulty expressing what they’re feeling, thinking and what their bodies need physically or emotionally.”

Parents of adoptive children often seek out her services, she said, because they know she has first-hand understanding that can help her relate to their child’s experiences and needs.

“When the adoptive child shares with me nuggets about their adoptive family, I fantasize with them and wonder with them what their bio mom, dad or siblings might be like and what they’d like to do with them. I let them know I did that as a child too,” Zavaleta said.

She recalled a former client who used to “ride” a fallen log like a horse, asking Zavaleta to ride with her, as she pretended she was going to Florida to visit her birth mother. After these sessions, the child was more regulated and visibly more at peace, Zavaleta noted.

“It feels so good to have space for that wonderment and fantasizing — because it acknowledges an important part of them and their history that most people don’t know how to discuss or navigate,” she said.

For the first 12 years of her career, Zavaleta was a school-based occupational therapist in Washington, D.C., focusing on preschoolers through middle school-aged children who needed help overcoming barriers in the classroom.

During the pandemic, when screens separated her from her patients, she noticed many of her students were suffering from the increase in screen time and deprivation of time spent outdoors.

She began bringing bits of nature into her virtual sessions, sharing leaves changing color with the seasons and tadpoles in clear glass jars that matured before their eyes.

Her clients were fascinated, she said, so when her practice returned to in-person meetings, she decided to move them outdoors.

Zavaleta recently moved her practice from Washington, D.C., to the Central Coast of California where she relocated to be closer to her biological family, who she reunified with in 2017 through DNA testing.

Of her two other adopted siblings, she is the only one who has reconnected with their birth family.

In her nature-based practice, addressing these issues includes activities like climbing trees, balancing on fallen logs, walking barefoot in the mud, starting campfires and scavenging woodland materials to build forts.

While it may sound whimsical, this approach to well-being and healthy development actually has a strong evidence base and has become a growing sphere of practice over the past decade.

While nature occupational therapy is relatively new, its psychological underpinning is ecotherapy, which has been studied for decades.

As early as the 1970s, researchers determined that ecotherapy — utilizing activities in nature to improve health — had a measurable neurological impact, resulting in decreased feelings of anger and aggression, and increased feelings of joy, playfulness, affection and friendliness.

More recent research has found spending time in nature decreased symptoms of ADHD, depression and anxiety.

“All of these benefits are tenfold more impactful and meaningful for kiddos that have experienced loss through adoption or foster care,” Zavaleta said.

And beyond improving existing conditions, scientists have concluded that nature-based interventions like the ones Zavaleta offers have “protective potential for children who have experienced adversity or are at-risk.”

The reasons for these benefits are rooted in both shifts in mindset as well as chemical changes the body experiences when in nature.

Visualizing the natural world and being in contact with soil and plants causes a shift in neurotransmitters such as serotonin, adrenaline and norepinephrine which regulate mood, attention and stress reactions in the body.

This can be especially important for children in foster care, because it calms the part of the nervous system responsible for the flight/fight/freeze response, which is often overactive in trauma survivors.

At the same time, children find empowerment in nature and build confidence, strength, and ultimately, resilience that can help them process their past.

”Although they were unable to stop the traumatic event, children can develop mastery of other difficulties found in nature,” researchers wrote in a 2020 paper.

Zavaleta also describes the more child-led dynamic she’s able to foster when taking clients into the woods versus seeing them in a clinic. “It takes away from this like me being the person that is engineering the space and deciding what they get to do; we’re arriving in the nature space together,” she said, noting that children are so often in hierarchical spaces where they’re being told they can or can’t do, like school, at home and in more traditional therapy settings.

“When we’re in that nature, I really let them take the lead and we’re experiencing it neutrally.”

Heidi Vanderwerff, whose toddler son was a client of Zavaleta’s in D.C., said working with a healthcare professional who had personal experience with adoption helped her family gain skills and understanding to build a strong connection with the child, who was adopted from foster care. “There was just that special connection with her,” said Vanderwerff, a social worker turned therapist, who credits Zavaleta with teaching them language “based on her personal and professional knowledge, around establishing safety and love with kids who’ve been adopted. She’s really a pretty magical person.”

Vanderwerff stumbled upon Zavaleta’s work after her son was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and referred to occupational therapy — but trying to do productive work with him confined to an indoor clinical setting sounded like a nightmare, she said.

Doing the work outdoors was more comfortable for both her and her son, and being in nature rather than a fluorescent-lit waiting room even provided some mental health respite for Vanderwaff.

Zavaleta and the toddler would explore a wooded trail, wading barefoot in a creek. The therapist brought along a child-safe saw and a hammer with nails, allowing him to use the tools on downed logs — never harming living nature, as Vanderwerff and Zavaleta were both quick to point out.

The repetitive motions of sawing and hammering were soothing for the sensory-seeking child, and his mother noticed he would become more regulated in the natural setting.

“What was most powerful about it was that it was a positive experience with him,” Vanderwerff said. “And when you have a child with special needs, like finding positive experiences when you can get them is really helpful to get through the rest of the days.”

Learn more about Rooted Kids OT or reach Zavaleta at her website https://www.rootedkidsnatureot.com/.

 

HOW TO ACCESS THERAPEUTIC BENEFITS OF NATURE

Whether you live in the wooded countryside or amid the skyscrapers of a big city, nature occupational therapist Mya Zavaleta shares tips on how all families can access the therapeutic benefits of nature in their everyday lives.

  • Let your child grow a plant indoors. No fancy materials needed, the pot can be as simple as a discarded food can or Tupperware container. Let your child take responsibility for planting and germinating the seed, ensuring it has enough water and sunlight. This activity can reduce stress, help them learn accountability and offers a simple pathway to connecting with nature. It can also, on some level, help children tap into the relational experience of being cared for by non-biological parents, Zavaleta said: “It’s almost like adopting a plant. You’re not a plant, you’re not its mom, but you can take care of that plant.”
  • Get outdoors — and dirty — together, any way you can. Whether it’s your backyard, a park without a playground or a nearby forest or coast, prioritize making it part of your routine to seek out time in nature together. And once there, let your child lead the experience as much as possible — allow them to explore and immerse themselves, climbing on rocks, touching trees and plants or going barefoot in the dirt. You’ll both reap benefits from this time.
  • Make use of your windows. Regardless of where you live, you’re sure to see signs of nature right outside your windows, whether it’s pigeons roosting, flowers in a window box or a copse of trees. Window gaze with your child and talk about what you see, noting any changes in the nature-scape as time passes. If possible, set up a space for your child to do their homework, read or color near a window to maximize exposure.

 

Sara Tiano is Fostering Families Today’s assistant editor and a senior reporter for its sister news site, The Imprint. Her journalism has been focused on foster care, child welfare and other issues facing youth and families for more than six years.