Nature experiences promote human development; yet, of concern, is the fact that access to nature's benefits is not equally distributed. Youth living in low-income communities tend to have more limited access to nature than other youth. This study focused on low-income youth and evaluated the impact of a school-based nature education program on their health-related quality of life (HRQoL), which is an indicator of health and well-being in the areas of physical, mental, emotional, and social functioning.
The study involved 362 youth (age 9-15) attending seven different schools in low-income areas of St. Louis, MO. The students were divided into two groups: an intervention group and a control group. Students in the intervention group (N=297) participated in a 15-week nature-based education (NBE) program. Students in the control group (N= 65) did not participate in the nature-based program. The NBE program consisted of weekly 45- to 90-minute classroom-based sessions focusing on a variety of environmental and health-related topics. The program also included monthly nature-based field trips with hands-on learning experiences. The field trips ranged from a 3-hour outing to an overnight camping experience. Students in both groups (intervention and control) completed a pre- and post-intervention survey that included questions extracted from a validated adolescent HRQoL assessment addressing five HRQoL domains: Physical Activity, Emotional Health Functioning, School Functioning, Social Functioning and Family Functioning.
Survey results showed that, after the 15-week nature-based program, youth in the intervention group experienced significant improvements in all HRQoL domain scores and overall HRQoL, while youth in the control group experienced significant declines in all the domain areas plus in overall HRQoL. The declines in HRQoL outcomes for the control group may be explained by the effects of season on self-reported well-being, as previous research indicates that youth have higher levels of self-reported well-being during Spring and Summer than during Fall and Winter. The fact that this study was conducted from August to December suggests that nature-based activities as experienced by the intervention group “may act as a potential buffer against seasonal declines in youth well-being”.
This study demonstrates that nature-based education (NBE) with an activity-based component can have “a substantial positive impact on the HRQoL of low-income youth.” These results warrant further research. Recommendations for future studies include investigations into different types and durations of NBE. Also of interest would be studies implemented over longer periods of time allowing for investigations into seasonal variability in HRQoL outcomes and studies examining the underlying mechanisms between NBE, health and well-being.