Health – Kids: Connection to Nature Lessens Distress, Hyperactivity, and Behavioral Problems

City lifestyle has been criticized for being an important reason for children being disconnected from nature. This has led to an unhealthy lifestyle in regard to active play and eating habits. Even worse, many young children do not feel well psychologically – they are often stressed and depressed. Sixteen percent of pre-schoolers in Hong Kong and up to 22% in China show signs of mental health problems.

Recent research shows that spending time in nature may bring many health benefits, and many environmental programs around the world are trying to decrease ‘nature-deficit’ and ‘child-nature disconnectedness’ in order to improve children’s health. For example, the World Health Organization, in order to monitor implementation of the Parma Declaration commitment to providing every child with access to “green spaces to play and undertake physical activity,” has set a 300-meter target. Interestingly, 90 per cent of the Hong Kong population lives within 400 metres of such areas. However, despite the extensive, adjacent greenness, families are not using these areas.

“We noticed a tendency where parents are avoiding nature. They perceive it as dirty and dangerous, and their children unfortunately pick up these attitudes. In addition, the green areas are often unwelcoming with signs like ‘Keep off the grass,’ ” said Dr. Tanja Sobko from the School of Biological Sciences of the University of Hong Kong. Until now, it has not been possible to measure connectedness to nature in preschool children, mostly due to the fact that they are too young to answer for themselves.

A new 16-item parent questionnaire to measure “connectedness to nature” in very young children has been developed by Dr. Sobko and her collaborator Prof. Gavin Brown, Director of the Quantitative Data Analysis and Research Unit at the University of Auckland. The questionnaire identified four areas that reflect the child-nature relationship: enjoyment of nature, empathy for nature, responsibility towards nature, and awareness of nature.

The study consisted of two parts: the initial interviews with the families and the subsequent development of the questionnaire. Altogether, 493 families with children aged between 2 and 5 have participated in the study. Finally, the new questionnaire was tested against the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, a well-established measurement of psychological well-being and children’s behaviour problems. The results revealed that parents who ensured that their child had a closer connection with nature discovered that the child had less distress, less hyperactivity, and fewer behavioural and emotional difficulties, and improved pro-social behaviour. Interestingly, children who took greater responsibility towards their interaction with nature had fewer peer difficulties. The results give a new possibility for investigating the link between the outdoor environment and well-being in pre-school children.

The study is part of Dr. Sobko’s research-based program “Play&Grow,” which is the first in Hong Kong to promote healthy eating and active playtime with preschool children by connecting them to nature. Launched 2016, it has so far included almost 1000 families from all over Hong Kong.

The findings have been published in the multidisciplinary Open Access journal, PLOS ONE. The new scale has already attracted international attention and is being adopted by universities worldwide including Western Australia and Deakin Universities. In addition, the HKU-developed “Play&Grow” program is also on track to be conducted in Australia. …

The next step is to further fine-tune future health promotion/disease prevention interventions, which Dr. Sobko and the team are committed to. … The new exciting extension of this work is to test the effect of exposing children to nature and then assessing for changes in their gut microbiota.

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For children, play is learning. There is no better space for kids to learn than the outdoors, and there is no better play resource than nature.

One of the best lessons children can be taught in their early years is to play outdoors. Children innately reap great benefits as they grow connection with and appreciation of the natural environment. In the structured, busy and technologically-advanced world we live in, the role of outdoor play that we experienced as children is being forgotten.

“Nature play” significantly improves all aspects of child development – physical, cognitive, social and emotional. …

There are many benefits to participating in nature play as a child, which also resonate into adulthood. Such outcomes from nature play include achievement, innovation, creativity, positive relationship development, skill development, self-awareness directly related to employability skills planning, organizing, decision making, innovation, problem solving, communication and working with others. The connection between these skills and the skills that will contribute to success later in life are clear to see.

Conversely, children who are not supported, encouraged, inspired or provided the opportunity to develop an intrinsic love of outdoor play are increasingly becoming disconnected from nature, to their detriment.

Children who don’t regularly participate in outdoor play lead sedentary lifestyles and are put at risk. Richard Louv, the American social commentator who wrote Last Child in the Woods, coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe as an illness afflicting children disconnected from nature. Symptoms of nature deficit disorder (as outlined by Louv, 2005) include depression, hyperactivity, boredom and loneliness. It may also manifest in reduced motor development and diminished mental and psychological health, including lack of attention, learning ability and creativity.

According to “Beyond Blue to Green,” a 2010 Australian report on the benefits of contact with nature for mental health and wellbeing, if we don’t take drastic changes to curb current sedentary indoor lifestyle trends, it is foreseeable that obesity, depression, stress, anxiety and mental health issues – which are all closely linked – will also continue to rapidly increase.

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“In early ages, with the people who were under God’s direction, life was simple. They lived close to the heart of nature. Their children shared in the labor of the parents and studied the beauties and mysteries of nature’s treasure house. And in the quiet of field and wood they pondered those mighty truths handed down as a sacred trust from generation to generation. Such training produced strong men.

“ … we may learn from them lessons that will make our seasons of recreation what the name implies—seasons of true upbuilding for body and mind and soul.” The Adventist Home, 501.

“For the first eight or ten years of a child’s life the field or garden is the best schoolroom, the mother the best teacher, nature the best lesson book. Even when the child is old enough to attend school, his health should be regarded as of greater importance than a knowledge of books. He should be surrounded with the conditions most favorable to both physical and mental growth.

“To the nervous child, who finds lessons from books exhausting and hard to remember, it [work in garden and field] will be especially valuable. There is health and happiness for him in the study of nature. …

“Working the soil is one of the best kinds of employment, calling the muscles into action and resting the mind.” Testimonies, vol. 6, 179.

“Little children should be permitted to run and play out of doors, enjoying the fresh, pure air, and the life-giving sunshine. Let the foundation of a strong constitution be laid in early life.” The Review and Herald, January 10, 1882.

“In order for children … to have health, cheerfulness, vivacity, and well-developed muscles and brains, they should be much in the open air … .” Counsels on Health, 177, 178.