Multiple studies have shown how living near and utilizing natural spaces can greatly benefit children's social and emotional wellbeing. Being outside can increase attention, buffer against stress, and support social and emotional development. Much of the related research, however, has focused on young children. This study adds to the research base by exploring how the availability of natural spaces for older children could impact their social, emotional, and behavioral wellbeing. This study also sought to understand how the relationship between access to nature and well-being may vary across socioeconomic circumstances.
Data for this study was based on a nationally representative sample of 774 children (age 10-11) who had participated in a previous study focusing on children's physical activity in Scotland. Parents answered survey questions around their child's hyperactivity, emotional problems, conduct problems, peer relationships, and prosocial behaviors. Researchers also collected data about the green spaces around the families' homes by looking at land cover data from Ordnance Survey MasterMap Topography. Family income data and other relevant demographic information was pulled from the original physical activity survey that the families had completed previously. Finally, the children wore accelerometers to measure their total daily physical activity, which was controlled for statistically. By collecting a variety of data, researchers were able to get a wide view of the participants' lives and then look for patterns in their daily activity and overall behaviors.
On average, about 25% of the land surrounding children's homes was natural space, regardless of income. Children with more natural space available had fewer emotional problems and displayed more prosocial behaviors. There were limited links to conduct, peer, and behavior problems. The benefits of having natural space near the home was especially strong among lower income students. Thus, natural spaces could be a lever to help benefit lower income households. Access to private gardens, however, was linked to higher prosocial behaviors among high income children, but lower prosocial behaviors among lower income children. Also, higher income children had more access to private garden space than lower income children. Additionally, it is possible that there may be socioeconomic differences in use of natural spaces, with higher income children using their private gardens to play with friends, and lower income students playing in a more public, community setting.
This research suggests that having access to green spaces may benefit children's prosocial behaviors, particularly among lower income children. This information is important, as it shows green spaces benefit children, and prioritization of these to lower income communities may help mitigate social inequality. Future work should investigate how type of greenspace impacts wellbeing, so that greening efforts could focus on children who might benefit the most.