The Unexpected Mental Health Benefits of Growing Up Around Nature

A new study finds that growing up in a green environment may lead to better mental health later in life.

Courtesy of Odua Images / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Odua Images / Shutterstock

Do you ever wonder how your childhood environment has resulted in your current beliefs and habits, and whether it has affected your health? I grew up in a city of about 200,000 inhabitants in the north of the Netherlands. I feel very fortunate that I grew up in a safe environment. I could play outside without having to worry too much about traffic. I was able to cycle to school since day one. We had a house with a garden that we, at some point, shared with two chickens (the “Groninger Meeuw Zilverpel Hen”). My parents were very conscientious about the environment, and we did not own a car and we did not eat meat. We cycled or used public transport. And this was about 30 years ago, when it wasn’t so fashionable yet to care for these things. I might have been the only one in my class without a car and on a vegetarian diet, and back then, to be honest, I didn’t understand why we needed to be so different than everyone else.

The older I get, the more I think about how my childhood has shaped my current thinking, my habits, and even my health. As a researcher, I study the effects of the environment on human health, and in our latest study we looked at whether childhood nature exposure was associated with health benefits in adulthood. Exposure to natural spaces (i.e. green spaces such as gardens, forests, urban parks; and blue spaces such as canals, ponds, creeks, rivers, lakes, beaches, etc.) has been associated with several health benefits, including a better cognitive development and better mental and physical health. There haven’t been many other studies looking at the long-term benefits of childhood nature exposure, but it is an important theme since so many children nowadays live in cities and have limited exposure to nature. Also, for many children, indoor activities and sedentary lifestyles have increased over the years.

This study, published in the International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health, was performed within the PHENOTYPE project with data from almost 3,600 adults from Barcelona (Spain), Doetinchem (the Netherlands), Kaunas (Lithuania), and Stoke-on-Trent (United Kingdom). We asked the participants how much time they spent using natural spaces during their childhood. We also asked them about their current amount of use and satisfaction with residential natural spaces, as well as the importance they give to such spaces. The mental health of the participants in terms of nervousness and feelings of depression in the past four weeks, as well as their vitality — energy and fatigue levels — were assessed through a psychological test.

We found that adults who were less exposed to natural spaces during their childhood had lower scores in mental health tests, compared to those with higher exposure. We also noticed that participants with lower childhood exposure to nature also gave a lower importance to natural environments. We did not see any link between childhood nature exposure and vitality, or the use of or satisfaction with these spaces in adulthood.  

From previous studies we know that the availability of nature and the time that children spend in nature provides benefits for their development. For example, it provides opportunities that stimulate discovery, creativity, risk-taking behaviour, basic emotional states (e.g. surprise), and psychological restoration and increased self-esteem. There are also indirect benefits for the development of children, including the mitigation of traffic-related air pollution, reduction of noise, and increased levels of physical activity. We think that through these pathways nature exposure during childhood could lead to prolonged benefits that last well into adulthood.

These findings show the importance of childhood exposure to natural spaces for the development of a nature-appreciating attitude and a healthy psychological state in adulthood. I think it is important to recognize the implications of growing up in environments with limited opportunities for exposure to nature. Cities need to make natural outdoor environments available, attractive, and safe for children to play in. Activities in nature could become a regular part of the school’s curriculum, and the greening of school yards should ensure children’s daily dose of nature and could potentially have long-term health benefits.

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Photo credit: Lukasz Szmigiel | Unsplash

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