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Nature Plays Key Role in Kids’ Mental Health, Review of 300 Studies Confirms

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Leela Magavi, M.D., Psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director at Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers discusses the important role nature plays in children’s mental health. 

Key Takeaways

  • A review of nearly 300 studies has found a strong connection between exposure to green spaces and mental health benefits in children.
  • The research showed that access to green spaces improved children’s physical activity, which may also benefit their emotional well-being.
  • The benefits of nature were more pronounced in children from historically marginalized communities, which tend to have limited access to green spaces.

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.1

Let’s take a closer look at the latest research on nature and emotional well-being in children.

The Study

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.1

“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 Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers. “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.1

This study, when taken alone, doesn’t provide evidence for a direct link between children’s mental health and nature, some experts say. It does, however, add to the growing body of work showing the benefits of the outdoors on kids.

“Since many of the studies were cross-sectional, it is not possible to contend any direct association or causality. In order words, 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.1

“The surface fact is that children of marginalized communities spend less time in clean outdoor environments,”2 says Matt Shenker, MEd, LPR-C, resident in counseling at Thriveworks in Hanover, Virginia. “So, since children from marginalized communities spend less time in clean outdoor environments, of course, they experience the greatest benefit when they do get that time.”

Rachna Buxani-Mirpuri, LMHC, owner of Buxani Counseling Care and author of “A Pint of Patience with a Dollop of Love,” adds: “Several studies have found that kids from marginalized communities who have access to nature tend to engage in less crime and are more socially trusting. It also helps promote a sense of safety, thus influencing positively the mental health of children and youth.”

And 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. My pediatric patients who have endured and continue to endure stressful situations have shared that they have sobbed and even screamed while hiking or spending time outdoors,” says Dr. Magavi.

She adds: “Many individuals tend to internalize their emotions due to multigenerational customs and the deleterious effects of perpetuated discrimination and trauma, 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.

“In the U.S. today, the color of one’s skin or the size of one’s bank account is a solid predictor of whether one has safe access to nature and all of its benefits,” says Shenker. “As a result, low-income communities and communities of color have diminished outdoor recreation opportunities and access to nature; lesser quality drinking water; worsened air pollution; greater vulnerability to heat, drought, and floods; greater exposure to disease; and less resilience to the impacts of climate change.”

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.1

“As a society we need to advocate for an equality in access to green spaces for all children,” adds Buxani-Mirpuri.

Meaningful Nature Exposure

It’s important to note that not all exposure to the outdoors is equal. “A parking lot is not a park, an urban playground without natural elements is not a garden,” the study says.1

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.

In terms of exactly what those meaningful interactions look like, Dr. Magavi suggests advising children to “focus on the sights, sounds, smells and bodily sensations as they hike or spend time outdoors and to write or speak about these experiences.” They could also try journaling about their experience or drawing the things they see.

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.

What This Means For You

It can be difficult to get kids to take a break from their screens, but the benefits of getting them to spend time outdoors can be well worth the effort. New research, which looked at nearly 300 studies, found that access to green spaces was strongly connected to improved mental health outcomes in children.

Not all exposure to the outdoors is equal, though. To help children reap the benefits of nature, look for spaces with plants and vegetation, and encourage them to try mindful activities, like journaling, experts say. It’s also important to call for policy changes that increase access to nature in all communities—including historically marginalized neighborhoods, which often lack parks.

The full article and references in Verywell Mind can be found here.

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Children