Can Exploring Nature Improve Mental Health?
The beauty of nature is healing to the mind, body and spirit. The smell of plants, the sounds of birds in the distance, seeing the magnificence of what the earth has created in all of its splendor. The preservation of nature is not only important to our global environment, it has been found essential to the very mental health of future generations. Thanks to a new study conducted by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), research has recently shown that adults who were in close contact with a natural outdoor environment as children correlated to better mental health later in their lives.
It is no secret that going outside more has a plethora of health benefits, but rarely have their been studies specifically on the impact of nature during childhood development. Moreover, the majority of studies in this matter have focused more on “green spaces”, such as gardens, forests and parks rather than “blue spaces” such as rivers, ponds, lakes and beaches.
The Importance of Nature
ISGlobal’s research team published their study in the International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health, performing within the framework of the PHENOTYPE project and applying data from roughly 3,600 adults across the regions of Stoke-on-Trent (United Kingdom), Barcelona (Spain), Kaunas (Lithuania), and Doetinchem (Netherlands). This sample of adults participated in a questionnaire, considering the frequency of both purposeful and non-purposeful visits to various outdoor locations, as well as the amount of outdoor spaces available to them, the use and satisfaction with residential natural spaces, and level of importance given to these spaces. The residential surroundings discussed were surveyed via satellite imagery to determine the “green-ness” of the spaces, and psychological assessments were given over a course of four weeks prior to the questionnaire, regarding nervousness, feelings of depression and levels of vitality.
Correlation between nature and mental health
Their study’s findings concluded that adults who were less exposed to natural spaces during childhood had a lower score in these psychological assessments, compared to those with higher exposure, with no significant association found between childhood exposure and vitality, or even the use of such spaces and their satisfaction with these spaces in later in adulthood. Author Myriam Preuss claimed that, “in general, participants with lower childhood exposure to nature gave a lower importance to natural environments.”
ISGlobal researcher and study coordinator, Wilma Zijlema, emphasized the importance of these findings, in her words, they “show the importance of childhood exposure to natural spaces for the development of a nature-appreciating attitude and a healthy psychological state in adulthood.”
Less and Less Green Space
Conservation of our environment should be considered an advancement toward promoting positive mental health as a byproduct of protecting our one and only home, considering these green spaces are slowly but surely dwindling in size. 73% of the European population lives in urban areas, often limited in green space. By 2050, this population is expected to increase to almost 80%. Zijlema implores, “it is important to recognize the implications of growing in up in environments with limited opportunities for exposure to nature.” director of ISGlobal’s Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, would remark that, “Many children in Europe lead an indoors lifestyle, so it would be desirable to make natural outdoor environments available, attractive and safe for them to play in,” and it would be safe to say the United States should also consider these views at the forefront of improving public mental health.
Get out, go play!
Many countries do not focus on activities involving nature as an essential part of a school’s curriculum. Furthermore, it can be easy falling into a routine of staying indoors as a matter of convenience rather than a matter of being an essential aspect to living a healthy lifestyle. More often than not, some families do not have the privilege to live remotely near natural outdoor environments beyond a bleak, concrete jungle. However, if your family does, in fact, have the privilege to live near green and blue spaces, be willing to take time and make time for your loved ones to visit these places. Take a walk through a park, visit the beach, soak in the wildlife that exists, have a picnic; these small moments may seem insignificant and can be taken for granted, but they can form in a child’s mind positive, lasting memories of what the environment meant to them personally. Parenting with an eye toward adulthood in this matter can help them form a meaningful relationship with the environment, and themselves, for the rest of their life.
Derek Dunston has worked in children’s entertainment for several years, through balloon art, magic, music, and educational games. He is working towards his B.A.S. in Secondary Mathematics grades 6-12 and has served Broward County Public Schools as a substitute teacher for three years. He plans to dedicate his life to child honoring and promoting inclusive/multicultural practices to benefit future communities in the fields of education and children’s entertainment.