Children & Nature: A Systemic Review

The HEAL prepared a report for the Lawson Foundation which systematically identified, evaluated and summarized existing empirical evidence on the impact of exposure to “nature” on children’s health and development; while highlighting potential gaps and opportunities for action.

The review focused on three major research questions:

How does children’s connection with nature benefit their physical health and development?
How does children’s connection with nature benefit their mental health and emotional well-being?
How does children’s connection with nature benefit their social and cognitive development?

Physical Health and Development

The most common benefit/health outcome identified covered among the studies reviewed was physical activity. The research suggests that access to nature can positively influence children’s physical activity levels. Various measures/features of nature influence children’s physical health, such as living near parks and green space, specific park amenities that are appealing to children and push them to be more physically active, as well as features of neighbourhood environments, such as the density of street trees. A less frequently examined aspect of physical health identified in the review was nature’s impact on child body mass index (BMI) or obesity. Generally, studies have demonstrated nature’s positive impact in helping children lower their BMI and risk of obesity. It was also identified that nature can play a role in increasing children’s fruit and vegetable consumption when children have direct contact with gardens.

Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being

The majority of the studies reviewed in relation to this second question was focused on nature’s connection to children with ADD/ADHD. A substantial amount of research has been published in this area which collectively indicates that exposure to green settings, open grass, and proximity to green space are all factors that effectively result in milder ADD/ADHD symptoms. Mental health, emotional well-being, resilience, self-esteem, stress, behavioural disorders, and health related quality of life are additional outcomes that were assessed within the peer-reviewed papers included in this review. In general, proximity to green space or parks was positively associated with better mental health and well-being among children and youth; while there is controversy surrounding the effects that green residential surroundings has on mental health and well-being.

Social and Cognitive Development

Among the papers reviewed in relation to the third theme focussing on how nature exposure benefits social and cognitive development, the two most common outcomes under examination were behaviour and academic achievement/performance. The evidence indicates that the natural environment surrounding schools can play a pivotal role in helping children succeed in academics, either through direct contact (i.e., being outside in nature) or indirect (i.e., views of nature from their classrooms). In terms of behaviour, proximity and access to nature, more specifically gardens, parks, and green space, was found to result in adolescents having fewer behavioural and conduct problems. Other studies in this theme examined how children’s nature contact and exposure impacted memory, self-discipline, relationships, focus, and attention.

See our Report and Publications

A summary of the report will can be viewed here.

See recent articles:

Tillmann, S., Tobin, D., Avison, W., Gilliland, J. 2018. Mental health benefits of interactions with nature in children and teenagers: a systematic review, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.,0:1–9 DOI: 10.1136/jech-2018-210436

Tillmann, S., Clark, A., Gilliland, J. 2018. Children and Nature: Linking Accessibility of Natural Environments and Children’s Health-Related Quality of Life, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health,15(6), 1072 DOI: 10.3390/ijerph15061072

For more information please contact:

Dr. Jason Gilliland
Director, HEAL Lab
Principal Investigator