According to a massive review of data from almost 300 studies, researchers at Washington State University and the University of Washington have confirmed that exposure to nature leads to a variety of health benefits in children. The scientists found that the presence of parks and other green spaces near homes and schools is associated with improved physical activity and mental health in children of all ages.
“By looking at the full scope of existing quantitative evidence, we were able to see the importance of ready access to nature for both physical and mental health outcomes in childhood,” said lead study author Amber Fyfe-Johnson, an assistant professor at the Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health (IREACH) at Washington State University.
“Access to nature – and the benefits that come with it – are a necessity, not a nicety. Unfortunately, not all kids are able to have regular nature contact. This is due partly to urbanization, increased screen time and more sedentary indoor lifestyles.”
According to Professor Fyfe-Johnson, historically marginalized communities are disproportionally affected by a lack of exposure to nature since they usually have fewer residential parks and outdoor spaces near their homes and schools. Moreover, poorer families also face significant problems in accessing parks and natural areas outside of the city.
Increased contact with nature could offer greater health benefits to disadvantaged populations by counteracting some of the toxic effects of poverty, such as lack of proper diets or exposure to various pollutants.
Although evidence to support the benefits of nature exposure for children’s physical and mental health has been mounting for years, little political action has been taken to enact policies that ensure equitable contact to nature. The fundamental social and demographic inequities in access to nature have recently been magnified by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has given rise to a worldwide health public health crisis related to physical inactivity and its deleterious effects on mental health.
“Making this information available to pediatric health care providers and policy makers provides support for practices and policies promoting environmental justice and equitable nature contact for kids in places where they live, play and learn,” explained study senior author Dr. Pooja Tandon, an associate professor at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
“We sincerely hope our work will help lead to improved access to nature and health outcomes for kids, in addition to reducing health disparities in childhood,” concluded Professor Fyfe-Johnson.
The study is published in the journal Pediatrics.