Child Development

Childhood Exposure to Nature May Have Long-Lasting Benefits

Childhood nature exposure may be linked to mental health outcomes in adulthood.

Posted May 26, 2019

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Source: KonstantinChristian/Shutterstock

There may be a correlation between contact with natural outdoor environments (NOEs) during childhood and mental health in adulthood, according to a new study from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health.

This paper, "Low Childhood Nature Exposure Is Associated with Worse Mental Health in Adulthood," was published May 22 in the International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health. The data for this research was collected as part of the PHENOTYPE project, which gathered questionnaire-based responses from 3,585 participants (ages 18-75) in four European cities.

As part of the PHENOTYPE survey, participants were asked a wide range of questions regarding their long-term relationship with natural spaces. The survey also asked respondents about their feelings of depression and nervousness (within the prior four weeks), along with questions about energy and fatigue levels.

The main takeaway of this study (Preuss et al., 2019) is that people who spent more time in natural environments as children appeared to have better mental health outcomes in adulthood.

Long before scientific researchers identified a correlative link between spending time in nature and mental health, nature essayists such as John Burroughs (1837-1921) and Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (1962), understood the psychological benefits of spending time in natural environments. Carson famously said, "There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter."

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Source: Vaclav Volrab/Shutterstock

Burroughs often wrote about how much spending time in nature had benefited his psychological well-being. In The Summit of the Years (1913), he wrote: 

"I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order. I have loved the feel of the grass under my feet, and the sound of the running streams by my side. The hum of the wind in the tree-tops has always been good music to me, and the face of the fields has often comforted me." 

People from all walks of life who make positive associations with nature tend to seek natural environments throughout their adult lives. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright once said: "I go to nature every day for inspiration in the day’s work." Albert Einstein also had an affinity for communing with nature. Einstein opined, "Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." 

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Source: IndustryandTravel/Shutterstock

Unfortunately, in their most recent study (2019), the European researchers found that low levels of NOE exposure during childhood were associated with adults de-prioritizing the importance of spending time in natural environments. "In general, participants with lower childhood exposure to nature gave lower importance to natural environments," first author, Myriam Preuss, said in a statement. 

"Many children lead an indoor lifestyle, so it would be desirable to make natural outdoor environments available, attractive, and safe for them to play in," Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, director of ISGlobal's Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative said in a statement. "In most countries, activities in nature are not a regular part of the school's curriculum. We make a call on policymakers to improve the availability of natural spaces for children and green schoolyards." (See, "8 Eye-Opening Ways Kids Benefit from Experiences with Nature.")

 Dmitry Naumov/Shutterstock
Source: Dmitry Naumov/Shutterstock

Did you spend much time in natural outdoor environments during childhood? If you are currently the parent of a school-age child growing up in an urban environment, does your kid have access to green spaces (e.g., city parks, a backyard) or blue spaces (e.g., an esplanade along a waterway, rivers, ponds)? During summertime, is spending time near the ocean, a lake, or visiting National Parks a top priority for you or other family members? 

If you are a parent and need more motivation to get outside with your kids: Another study on the effects of natural environment on family cohesion (Izenstark & Ebata, 2017) found that spending time in nature with a child—even if it was just a 20-minute walk in a nearby park or arboretum—had the power to strengthen parent-child bonds and family cohesion. (See: "Walking in Natural Environments Nourishes Parent-Child Bonds.")

This Memorial Day, as we gear up for the transition from spring to summer, please consider participating in the One Nature Challenge that is available (free of charge) online from the David Suzuki Foundation. The goal of this challenge is to create a year-round "nature habit" by encouraging and supporting people of all ages to spend 30 minutes in nature for 30 consecutive days.

References

Myriam Preuß, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, Sandra Marquez, Marta Cirach, Payam Dadvand, Margarita Triguero-Mas, Christopher Gidlow, Regina Grazuleviciene, Hanneke Kruize, and Wilma Zijlema. "Low Childhood Nature Exposure is Associated with Worse Mental Health in Adulthood." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (First published: May 22, 2019)  DOI: 10.3390/ijerph16101809

Ming Kuo, Michael Barnes, and Catherine Jordan. "Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship." Frontiers in Psychology (First published: February 19, 2019) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305

Dina Izenstark and Aaron T. Ebata. "The Effects of the Natural Environment on Attention and Family Cohesion: An Experimental Study." Children, Youth and Environments (First published: November 17, 2017) DOI: 10.7721/chilyoutenvi.27.2.0093