Children growing up near woodlands or exposed to green spaces displayed better cognitive development and lower risk of emotional and behavioural problems, a new research study has revealed.
Led by University College London (UCL) and Imperial College London, the major study used longitudinal data relating to 3,568 children and teenagers, aged nine to 15 years from 31 schools across London. Published in Nature Sustainability, the study assessed the links between different types of natural urban environments and the children’s cognitive development, mental health and overall wellbeing.
The environments were divided into green space (woods, meadows and parks) and blue space (rivers, lakes and the sea). Researchers used satellite data to help calculate each adolescent's daily exposure rate to each of these environments within 50m, 100m, 250m and 500m of their home and school.
A major finding from the study was that children with greater daily exposure to these green spaces showed higher scores for cognitive development and a 16% lower risk of emotional and behavioural problems two years later.
One in 10 of London's children and adolescents between the ages of five and 16, suffers from a clinical mental health illness with excess costs estimated between £11,030 and £59,130 annually for each person. Similar to adults, there is evidence that natural environments play an important role in the cognitive development and mental health of children and adolescents into adulthood.
The researchers analysed a longitudinal dataset of 3,568 adolescents between 2014 and 2018, whose residence was known, from the Study of Cognition, Adolescents and Mobile Phones (SCAMP) across the London metropolitan area. They assessed adolescents' mental health and overall wellbeing from a self-reported Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) – covering areas such as emotional problems, conduct, hyperactivity and peer problems – and the KIDSCREEN-10 Questionnaire taken by each adolescent for SCAMP.
The results of this study suggest that urban planning decisions to optimise ecosystem benefits linked to cognitive development and mental health should carefully consider the type of natural environment included. Natural environments further away from an adolescent's residence and school may play an important role too.
Lead author, Ph.D. student Mikaël Maes (UCL Geography, UCL Biosciences and Imperial College London School of Public Health) said, "Previous studies have revealed positive associations between exposure to nature in urban environments, cognitive development and mental health. Why these health benefits are received remains unclear, especially in adolescents.”
"These findings contribute to our understanding of natural environment types as an important protective factor for an adolescent's cognitive development and mental health and suggest that not every environment type may contribute equally to these health benefits.”
Joint senior author Professor Mireille Toledano (Director, Mohn Centre for Children's Health and Wellbeing and Investigator, MRC Centre for Environment and Health and Principal Investigator of the SCAMP study, Imperial College London) said, "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 urbanisation around you, but lower than your parents' socio-economic status. Sensory and non-sensory pathways have been suggested as potentially important for delivering cognition and mental health benefits received from exposure to nature.”
"It's critical for us to tease out why natural environments are so important to our mental health throughout the life course – does the benefit derive from the physical exercise we do in these environments, from the social interactions we often have in them, or from the fauna and flora we get to enjoy in these environments or a combination of all of these?"
Joint senior author Professor Kate Jones (UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research, UCL Biosciences) said, "One possible explanation for our findings may be that audio-visual exposure through vegetation and animal abundance provides psychological benefits, of which both features are expected in higher abundance in woodland. Even though our results show that urban woodland is associated with adolescent's cognitive development and mental health, the cause of this association remains unknown. Further research is fundamental to our understanding of the links between nature and health."
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