Research Summary

Promoting health-related quality of life in minority youth through environmental education and nature contact

Minority youth who participated in an environmental education and nature contact program reported improved overall health-related quality of life

Sustainability
2019

Racial and ethnic disparities are evident in many aspects of society, including education, health, and access to nature. This study was based on the understanding that disparities in nature contact may have implications for inequalities in youth health and well-being. A growing body of evidence indicates that increasing youth’s access to nature reduces their risk for mental health disorders, especially among lower socioeconomic groups. This study examined the relationship between participation in an environmental education program with a nature contact component and health-related outcomes for minority youth.

Fifty-three students (age 10-14) from three urban elementary schools in the St. Louis Public School District participated in a 13-week environmental education program featuring three primary components: (1) a weekly STEM-based environmental classroom activity; (2) a monthly nature-based outdoor activity; and (3) academic year-round mentoring by local university students. The nature-based outdoor outings included visits to local farms, hiking in state parks, and canoeing down the Mississippi River. Most (88.7%) of the participating students were African American, 7.5% Hispanic, and 3.8% White. More than 95% of students from the three schools were from low-income families, as indicated by their eligibility for free meals.

Forty-six (87%) of the participating students completed questionnaires before and after the program. The questionnaire addressed five quality of life domains: physical activity, emotional functioning, school functioning, social functioning, and family support. The sum of the scores for these five areas was used to determine overall health-related quality of life (HRQoL), with higher scores indicating better HRQoL. The questionnaire also collected information about past environmental science and outdoor activity experiences.

Survey results showed that before the environmental education intervention, approximately 49% of the students had not visited a zoo, 32% had not visited a science museum, 20% had not visited a park, 45% had not visited a garden in the past year, and 66% of the students had not met a scientist. Survey results showed statistically significant improvements in overall HRQoL scores and in the family support domain. While mean scores in the other four domains showed post-intervention increases, these increases were not significant.

This study demonstrated that minority youth who participated in an environmental education and nature contact program experienced improved overall health-related quality of life and family support. These findings suggest that increased access to the natural environment through classroom and field-based environmental education may help address the health-related disparities experienced by low-income and minority youth.