Research Summary

Low childhood nature exposure is associated with worse mental health in adulthood

Low exposure to natural outdoor environments during childhood is associated with worse mental well-being in adulthood

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
2019

This study examined the association between childhood exposure to natural outdoor environments (NOE) and mental health (MH) and vitality in adulthood. Previous research documents multiple health benefits associated with exposure to nature, but few studies have examined long-term benefits of childhood NOE exposure. The studies that have done so have generally not examined potential mediating factors, such as the adults’ current exposure and use of NOE.

Researchers used data collected from questionnaires completed by 3585 residents (age 18–75) of four European cities: Barcelona (Spain), Doetinchem (Netherlands), Kaunas (Lithuania) and Stoke-on-Trent (United Kingdom). Items on the questionnaire asked participants about frequency of use of NOE during childhood, including purposeful activities such as hiking and non-purposeful activities such as playing in the backyard. Questionnaire items also addressed current amount, use and satisfaction with residential NOE, as well as the importance participants placed on such spaces. Other questionnaire items were based on a psychological assessment of the mental health and vitality of the participants. The mental health items focused on nervousness and feelings of depression. The vitality items asked about perceived level of energy and fatigue. Satellite imagery was used to assess the current residential surrounding greenness of the participants.

Results showed that adults with less exposure to natural spaces during childhood had lower scores on the mental health tests than those with higher exposure. Participants with lower childhood exposure to nature also gave lower importance to natural environments. Results showed no association between childhood exposure and adult vitality. Other factors, however, were positively associated with adult vitality. These included high perceived amount of NOE, high use of NOE, high satisfaction with NOE, and high importance of NOE. Results showed no association between childhood exposure and the use of or satisfaction with natural spaces in adulthood or between childhood NOE exposure and residential surrounding greenness. The findings of this study suggest that childhood NOE exposure is independently associated with mental health in adulthood, and not mediated by current NOE exposure factors.

Previous studies investigating associations between childhood nature exposure and adult health and well-being have generally been conducted with certain population groups and have not compared different settings. This study adds  to the literature by including diverse groups with distinct cultures and various settings. This study also considered a large array of potential mediators, which were not included in previous research. The consistency of the associations between childhood NOE exposure and mental health -- even after adjusting for potential mediators -- attests to the robustness of this relationship.

These findings highlight the importance of childhood exposure to natural spaces for a healthy psychological state in adulthood and for the development of an appreciation of the natural world. Policymakers are urged to improve the availability of natural spaces for children, including the provision of green school yards.