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Blue spaces in childhood improve well-being later in life

Spending time in nature is known to have positive effects on a person’s mental health and sense of well-being. In most previous studies on this phenomenon, ‘nature’ has been represented by parks, green spaces and woodlands, and their benefit on adult mental health has been assessed. In a new study, however, researchers have investigated the role played by contact with blue spaces, such as coastal regions, rivers and lakes. In addition, they have sought the mechanisms whereby childhood experiences in nature’s waterways influence subjective well-being in adulthood.

For this study, the researchers used data from 15,743 participants in the BlueHealth International Survey (BIS), a cross-sectional survey coordinated by the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health. The participants came from 14 different European countries and four other, non-European countries/regions, namely Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and California.

Respondents were asked to recall their blue space experiences between the ages of 0 and 16 years, including how often they visited such spaces, how local they were, and how comfortable their parents/guardians were about allowing them to swim and play in these settings. They were also asked to quantify their recent contact with green and blue spaces over the previous four weeks, as well as the status of their mental health during the previous two weeks.

The results of the investigation, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that individuals who recalled more childhood blue space experiences tended to place greater intrinsic value on natural settings in general, and to visit them more often as adults – each of which, in turn, was associated with better mental wellbeing in adulthood. The researchers found that a model where childhood exposure to blue spaces was linked to adult subjective well-being primarily through intrinsic motivation and then through recent blue and green space visits exhibited the best fit to the data. This pattern was apparent across the data from all 18 countries. 

The authors conclude that building familiarity with, and confidence in and around, blue spaces during childhood may stimulate a joy of, and greater propensity to spend recreational time in, nature in adulthood, with positive consequences for adult subjective well-being.

Valeria Vitale, Lead author and PhD Candidate at Sapienza University of Rome, said: “In the context of an increasingly technological and industrialized world, it’s important to understand how childhood nature experiences relate to wellbeing in later life.”

Dr Leanne Martin, co-author and postdoctoral research associate at the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health, said: “Water settings can be dangerous for children, and parents are right to be cautious. This research suggests, though, that supporting children to feel comfortable in these settings and developing skills such as swimming at an early age can have previously unrecognized life-long benefits.”

Dr. Mathew White, co-author and senior scientist at the University of Vienna, said: “The current study is adding to our growing awareness of the need for urban planners and local bodies responsible for managing our green and blue spaces to provide safe, accessible access to natural settings for the healthy mental and physical development of our children.

“If our findings are supported by longitudinal research that tracks people’s exposures over the entire life-course, it would suggest that further work, policies and initiatives encouraging more blue space experiences during childhood may be a viable way to support the mental health of future generations.”

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By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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