Children in fairytales don’t usually fare well in the forest, but real children definitely benefit from living near one, according to a new paper.
New research reports that children and young people living close to woodlands show better cognitive development and lower risks of emotional and behavioral problems. Although not many of us have the luxury of choosing to live next to woodlands, the findings can help influence city planners of the future, potentially bringing the woodland to us (or at the very least, ensuring that we don’t cut down more of it).
Take to the trees
The study worked with data relating to 3,568 children and teenagers, aged nine to 15 years, from 31 schools across London. According to the authors, this is a very important time window for our development, a time when children develop their reasoning skills and understanding of the world around them. As such, the authors looked at how different types of environments impact UK pupils’ cognitive development, mental health and overall well-being.
“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,” says Mikaël Maes, a PhD student at UCL Geography, UCL Biosciences and Imperial College London School of Public Health and lead author of the paper.
For the study, researchers at University College London and Imperial College London divided environments into green space (woods, meadows, and parks) and blue space (rivers, lakes, and the sea). Green spaces were further divided into grasslands and woodlands. Satellite images were then used to estimate each participant’s daily exposure to each type of environment within 50m, 100m, 250m, and 500m of their home and school.
After adjusting for a host of variables, the team found that daily exposure to woodlands was associated with higher scores for cognitive development. It was also associated with a 16% lower risk of emotional and behavioral problems two years after the study’s conclusion. Grasslands, however, did not have the same effect.
The variables they controlled for include age, ethnic background, gender, parental occupation and type of school (state or independent).
However, exposure to green spaces, in general, had a beneficial effect on the teenagers’ development, similar but much less powerful than that seen for woodlands. Blue spaces seem not to elicit the same effect, although the authors note that access to blue space among participants was generally quite low.
Air pollution might play a part in the teens’ cognitive development, the paper notes, but the authors didn’t have access to reliable data in order to factor it in. Future research might also look into this topic, they suggest.
All in all, the findings suggest that natural environments provide benefits to the development of children and adolescents, as well as fostering their mental health. Urban planners should keep this in mind, the team suggests, and make such environments available in cities. Even patches of natural environment further away from a teenagers’ home or school can help, according to the authors. However, as the results show, not all types of natural environments are equal in this regard.
“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,” Maes explains. “Forest bathing, for example (being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of a forest), is a relaxation therapy that has been associated with physiological benefits, supporting the human immune function, reducing heart rate variability and salivary cortisol, and various psychological benefits.”
“However, the reasons why we experience these psychological benefits from woodland remain unknown.”
Lead author, PhD student Mikaël Maes (UCL Geography, UCL Biosciences and Imperial College London School of Public Health) concluded:
“The team notes that a sizeable chunk of the participants, slightly over 52%, had parents employed in a managerial/professional occupation, which could skew the results. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and special need pupils may be affected differently by natural environments.”
The paper “Benefit of woodland and other natural environments for adolescents’ cognition and mental health” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.