Research Summary

Landscapes of becoming social: A systematic review of evidence for associations and pathways between interactions with nature and socioemotional development in children

Review of the literature reveals considerable – but inconsistent – evidence of positive associations between children’s interaction with nature and their socioemotional development.

Environment International
2021

This systematic review of the literature focused on the effects of interaction with nature on socioemotional functioning in childhood. Studies included in the review used experimental or observational research designs, were based on quantitative analyses, involved participants under the age of 12, and investigated associations between contact with nature and childhood socioemotional function and development. Contact with or exposure to nature included direct engagement, passive exposure, and access to natural environments. Studies using direct and proximal measures of socioemotional development were included. Proximal measures, or mechanisms, were defined bidirectionally as “behaviours and states that were both associated with or were improved through contact with nature and associated with or improved socioemotional development outcomes."

The search for relevant literature yielded a total of 223 eligible studies. Of these, 43 pertained to socioemotional outcomes and 180 to proximal outcomes. Researchers examined these studies to assess the consistency of associations between children’s interaction with natural environments and features with their socioemotional functioning. The researchers also conducted a quality assessment of the included studies to identify potential issues related to confounding or other biases. Overall findings provided considerable evidence of positive associations between children’s interaction with nature and their socioemotional function and development. The consistency of these findings, however, was “somewhat scattered” and the study quality mixed. There were only a few studies determined to be “without either probable or severe risk of bias in at least one item.” The concern about bias related to both observational and experimental studies.

The authors reported consistent evidence for improved aspects of cognition, particularly in the areas of working memory, and, for children over six, lower risk of obesity and overweight associated with green space; consistent links between green space and movement behaviors in experimental, but not observational research; tentative trends suggesting a relationship between nature and play, motor skills, language, screen time, and communication skills; little evidence for a positive relationship between green space and mood, physical wellbeing, and stress; some evidence for a relationship with healthy birth outcomes, and little evidence for direct associations between availability of green space and asthma and allergy prevalence, however, mediation via, for example, air pollution was likely.  According to the researchers, for children who are exposed to air pollution, green space may slightly reduce the risk of adverse birth outcomes, allergy, and asthma. Studies involving urban children increased the likelihood of positive findings. In some instances, the association between nature contact and socioemotional development was stronger for girls; in other instances, stronger for boys. Some studies showed that socioeconomic and cultural background influenced the association. Green space in schools was more often associated with positive socioemotional outcomes than residential greenery.

This review indicates that the empirical evidence for benefits of nature contact for children’s socioemotional function and development “must currently be considered limited.” The findings, however, allowed the researchers to identify potential pathways through which interaction with nature might promote socioemotional development and to propose an evidence-based model for how this might occur.