CHILDREN exposed regularly to nature may be less likely to suffer mental health problems in adulthood, according to research led by La Caixa bank’s scientific unit.
The facts, says the Barcelona Institute of Global Health (ISGlobal), were extracted from 3,600 people in four countries: Barcelona, in Spain; Stoke-on-Trent, UK; Doetinchem, The Netherlands, and Kaunas, Lithuania.
Results, published in the International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health, maintained that a positive correlation was found between time spent in non-urban outdoor areas in childhood, with better cognitive development, as well as mental and physical well-being.
This correlation was found to have an immediate effect, more or less, because nature and fresh air have long been thought to be beneficial for mind and body.
But the combination had never been tested for its longer-term qualities before now, or its impact on adulthood when exposed to it in childhood.
Also, prior studies focused almost exclusively on the “green areas” of parks, gardens and woodlands, and rarely on “blue areas”, as the research terms them, such as ponds, streams, canals, rivers, lakes and beaches.
The investigation formed part of the European Phenotype Project: “phenotype” being the combination of genes, or “genotype”, with the environment, seen in physical, mental and behavioural features, which are part-nature and part-nurture.
It also involved a questionnaire for adult participants about how often they were exposed to nature as children.
These included both planned or intentional trips, such as excursions to mountains or visits to the park in their town, and also spontaneous ones, like playing in their gardens at home.
They were also asked about the size of non-urban outdoor areas near where they currently lived, how much they used them and how satisfactory they were.
A psychological examination assessed their level of nerves, anxiety and depression in the past four weeks, and also their levels of vitality. In other words, energy versus fatigue.
The space and quality of non-urban, outdoor areas near their homes were calculated by satellite imaging, to compare and contrast with their self-report of this.
The results found that, overall, poorer mental health results, for those who had spent most of their childhood indoors or in heavily built-up areas, compared with those who had spent a lot of their early years outdoors in the countryside, parks, or near water.
“In general, those who spent less time in contact with nature during their childhood, have less enthusiasm about non-urban outdoor areas than those who spent more of their early years in the countryside,” said Myriam Preuss, main author of the research report.
Wilma Zijlema, ISGlobal investigation co-ordinator said: “The conclusions showed the relevance of exposure to nature in childhood, in developing an appreciation for the natural world, and in developing a healthy, psychological state in adulthood.”
At present, 73% of Europe’s population live in built-up areas, with no frequent access to non-urban outdoor places, and this figure is predicted to rise to 80% by 2050.
“For this reason, it is crucial to know the implications for little boys and girls, about growing up with limited opportunities to enjoy nature,” said Ms Zijlema.
“Many little girls and boys in Europe are used to living an indoor life, so it’s a good idea to improve natural, outdoor spaces in towns and cities, designing them to be safer, and making them more inviting to play in.”
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