Those of us who grew up with access to nature may have better mental health than those who did not, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research. The finding has researchers calling for a shift in priorities when it comes to urban planning for future generations.
There are plenty of health benefits to spending time in the great outdoors, but research is scarce when it comes to how time spent outside as a child informs our psychological well-being in adulthood.
To test this, researchers surveyed 3,585 adults aged 18 to 75 in four European cities on topics such as how often they visited natural spaces as a child and now as an adult. Participants were also given a psychological test to determine the status of their mental health in the last month. Adults with low levels of nature exposure during childhood saw “significantly worse” mental health issues and did not view natural spaces with as much importance in adulthood as those who spent more time growing up outside. However, it is important to note that the authors cite a potential for recall bias as the questionnaire was self-reported and only included one question about childhood exposure.
Regardless, researchers say that their findings highlight the importance of childhood exposure to natural space as it relates to developing an appreciation of nature and a healthy psychological state in adulthood. This is particularly relevant given almost three-quarters of Europeans currently live in urban spaces with little access to green space. That number is expected to increase to 80 percent in the next three decades.
"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," said study author Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, director of ISGlobal's Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative, in a statement. "We make a call on policymakers to improve [the] availability of natural spaces for children and green schoolyards."
Mental health has been shown to be negatively influenced by urban environments due to exposure to noise, crowds, and a lack of green spaces, among other things. Children who live sedentary lifestyles are more likely to have a lower quality of life, self-esteem, physical health, and a higher body mass index.
The authors say that further studies are needed in order to confirm their findings and identify why we see these long-term benefits with nature. Additionally, information from family members about exposure to the outdoors in childhood, their housing situation, and family history of mental health issues would have strengthened the study design.