Youngsters benefit from living close to woodland

Most people within Europe live in cities, meaning exposure to nature on a constant basis is not always a given. This thus poses challenges regarding the design of urban areas in order to incorporate as much natural space as possible. While it has been oft documented that living close to nature and spending time there has benefits for adults, a recently published study outlines how important this is for children and adolescents too.

Key to development

A crucial time in an adolescent’s development is between the ages of 9 to 15. Here, the development of their thinking, reasoning and understanding of the world is heavily impacted upon. Urban nature provides a respite from the urban jungles of cities, often being an accessible escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. In the world of urban planning, planners split natural urban environments into both green and blue spaces. Blue spaces are those such as rivers, lakes and the sea. Green spaces include woods, meadows and parks, with these further divided into woodland and grassland environments.

In London, scientists assessed the impact of such spaces for 3,568 children and teenagers, from 31 schools across the city. This showed a link between green space, mental health, cognitive development and overall well-being. Children and teenagers who had a higher daily exposure to woodland, during time at school and home, saw greater benefits. After two years, they had higher scores for cognitive development and a 16% lower risk of emotional and behavioural problems. The effect for grassland and other green spaces was also noticeable, but not as great as for woodland. Interestingly, there was no effect of daily exposure to blue space.

The joys and benefits of nature

While it is not certain why green spaces have a positive impact on human development, the benefits are definitely noticeable. Studies have shown that spending time in forests through forest bathing can bring health benefits. Forest bathing is where one immerses oneself in the sights, sounds and smells of a forest. Subsequently thereafter, those exposed to woodland in this way profit from various psychological benefits, an increase in human immune function, and a reduction in heart rate variability and salivary cortisol.

Scientists do not yet know exactly why we derive these psychological benefits from woodland. However, there are theories out there that are related to what we get up to in forests. It could be from the physical exercise that we undertake in the woods, the social interactions we have in them, or just simply through the enjoyment of the flora and fauna present in these environments. Perhaps, even a combination of all three. The audio-visual exposure through vegetation and animal abundance is greater in woodland as flora and fauna tends to be more plentiful in such environments, which also contributes to a greater sense of joy and stimulates the mind in a healthy way, impacting mental health positively.

These are just a few potential reasons for why nature, especially woodland, is so beneficial to our health. However, considerations should be given to socio-economic status as well, which may influence the results of such studies. Those in higher socio-economic groups may generally benefit from a greater exposure to nature or benefit from other advantages that also lead to positive physiological and psychological affects i.e. lower crime rates. Thus, determining the reasons for these benefits brought by nature still requires further research.

Rethinking urban spaces

What all this shows is that access to green spaces in urban areas needs to optimised where possible. Such decisions lie with urban planners.

Urban planning should integrate the optimisation of ecosystem benefits linked to cognitive development and mental health. To achieve this, planners should carefully consider the types of natural environments included into urban areas so that they end up providing most benefit to human development, as not every environment type may contribute equally to the aforementioned health benefits. With the hustle and bustle of modern life, these decisions are becoming ever more important in providing accessible nature to the growing number of city dwellers.

It’s been suggested previously that the benefits of natural environments to mental health are comparable in magnitude to family history, parental age and even more significant than factors like the degree of urbanization around you, but lower than your parents’ socio-economic status.

Professor Mireille Toledano
Director, Mohn Centre for Children’s Health and Wellbeing and Investigator, MRC Centre for Environment and Health, Imperial College London

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