We encourage children to play outside, but how does this affect their well-being? In this Verywell Mind article, Mindpath Health’s, Leela R. Magavi, MD, discusses the research that makes the connection with nature.
Community parks do more than beautify neighborhoods—they also play an important role in kids’ mental health, new research confirms.
A massive report recently published in the journal Pediatrics reviewed nearly 300 studies and found a strong connection between the presence of green spaces near homes and schools and positive mental health outcomes in children. It also uncovered a connection between exposure to nature and improved physical activity in kids, which may, in turn, offer added mental health benefits.
For this report, a team of researchers from Washington State University and the University of Washington evaluated data from existing research to understand the effect of nature on children’s health in seven key areas: physical activity; cognitive, behavioral, and mental health; body mass index (BMI); cardiovascular and metabolic measures; asthma and allergies; academic and learning; and other.
They started with nearly 11,000 studies, and after eliminating ones that didn’t meet key criteria (such as having a low risk of bias), they included research from 296 studies in their final report.
“This appears to be a comprehensive review, which carefully examines existing literature. Such reviews integrate various pieces of information, and consequently, allow us to understand specific associations,” explains Leela R. Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional medical director for Mindpath Health. “It is important to note that many studies were excluded based on quality and risk of bias, which suggests that the results are more accurate.”
The researchers found that the most common health outcomes children experienced from green spaces were in the areas of physical activity; cognitive, behavioral, or mental health, and BMI.
The strongest benefits on mental health were seen in studies where children had exposure to green spaces where they live or go to school. The authors note that the results of most studies on this topic showed a positive connection between nature and children’s attention and mood.
The report also found that exposure to green spaces was connected with improvements to children’s physical activity levels—a result that may offer its own benefits on emotional well-being, considering the long-standing evidence of exercise on mental health.
“We cannot state for certain that nature does improve children’s physical or mental health, but we can assert that it may positively impact children’s comprehensive well-being,” says Dr. Magavi.
Inequitable access to green spaces
Interestingly, the author says that kids from historically marginalized communities reaped even more pronounced benefits when they had access to nature.
Beyond scientific research, mental health professionals have countless anecdotes of the ways in which green spaces have proven therapeutic for some of their most vulnerable young patients.
“My patients from historically marginalized communities have conveyed that nature and outdoor activities allow them to experience solitude, and in this solitude, they are able to fully experience catharsis,” says Dr. Magavi. “Many individuals tend to internalize their emotions, so nature and outdoor locations provide them with a safe place to release their emotions.”
But despite the benefits, under-resourced communities often have inequitable access to green spaces, which could be playing a role in exacerbating mental health disparities.
The study authors say they hope the findings of their report will influence policies that lead to improved access to nature for children from all communities and a reduction in childhood health disparities.
Meaningful nature exposure
To provide children the full spectrum of benefits from the outdoors, parents and caregivers should help them have meaningful interactions with truly green spaces, like a grassy park, a nature trail, or even a community garden, if those environments are accessible to you.
The key is to find an appealing and mindful way for a child to engage in nature to increase the potential for profound benefits.
“Some children have embraced new and exciting outdoor hobbies, and have learned more about themselves, their strengths, and weaknesses. This self-awareness and introspection can improve happiness and interpersonal relationships,” says Dr. Magavi.
Read the full Verywell Mind article with sources.