Mental Health Week: How nature nurtures the mind of a child

Guest blog post by Tara Zupancic, MPH Director, Habitus Research

Something profound happens when children are given time to unfurl in nature – the unique merging of rest and revelry inspires an unparalleled form of resuscitation, comfort and creative play. Even the most resistant children seem to succumb to the fascination and unstructured creativity that nature sparks.  

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Photo of the Niagara River by Julie Chan

The ability of nature to shift a child’s mood and mental focus isn’t simply a romantic notion. Scientific investigation reveals that nature serves as a seedbed of restoration that can buffer the gravity of stress, anxiety, depression and learning challenges braved by a ballooning number of children.

Time in nature can influence the brain activity of children, impacting their sense of wellbeing. Stanford researchers have found that a 90-minute walk in nature can reduce brain activity associated with rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self), a known risk factor for depression and anxiety. Studies also show that time in nature can have a calming effect on the heart and nervous systems of youth, reduce stress hormone production and aggression, and increase positive feelings that help to ward off stress and depression.

Emerging research indicates that extended time in nature can improve a child’s creative problem solving, focus and ability to learn. Children coping with attention deficit disorder (ADD) showed a significant decrease in symptoms following activity in green spaces; the “greener” a child’s play area, the less severe his or her attention deficit symptoms were.

Scientists are only beginning to unravel the many ways by which nature restores our sense of well being, but walking among large trees appears to be particularly important. In Japan, walking in forests has become a well-recognized mental health promotion strategy, and forest walking clubs are now popping up all over the world.

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Photo by Sarah Vander Heide

As an increasingly urban planet, we need to ensure that nature endures and is accessible to all children. In Ontario, our Greenbelt offers permanent protection and access to forests, natural spaces, conservation areas and agricultural systems for generations. Currently, 9.2 million people live within 20km of the Greenbelt and 1.8 million of them are under 19 years old. These lands and waterways offer children an opportunity to build foundational connections to nature, a refuge that they can return to throughout their lives. Doing so can also build bonds of reciprocity through caring for the natural spaces that care for us.

For more information on nature, human health and wellbeing, visit the EcoHealth Ontario website: http://www.ecohealth-ontario.ca/. The EcoHealth Ontario collaborative (of which the Greenbelt Foundation is a partner) works to foster improved health and well being outcomes for Ontarians through healthy ecosystems, increased green space and enhanced access to nature.

Please click here to view a list of the studies reference in this blog post.