Children from less wealthy families are likely to have found COVID-19 lockdowns more difficult due to less time spent in nature than their more affluent peers.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge found that children who spent more time in nature during lockdown had less emotional and behavioral problems.
“In this UK sample of 3-to-7-year-old children, we found that increases in children’s connection to nature were associated with higher socio economic status (SES) – that is, children that did increase their connection to nature were more likely to be from high SES families. Children experiencing an increase in connection to nature were likely to have lower levels of behavioral and emotional problems compared with children whose connection to nature remained the same or decreased during lockdown. This was true even when accounting for socio economic status,” Samantha Friedman, first author of the study and a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research, told Theravive.
Behavioral problems in children may include aggressive behavior, hyperactive behaviour and acting out while emotional problems include feeling sad, isolated or worrying.
The benefits of nature on mental health are well established, but the pandemic provided the researchers with a unique lens through which to view the influence nature can have on the mental health of children.
“The COVID-19 pandemic provided a novel context through which to study how children’s connection to nature has been impacted as well as how these changes may be associated with children’s well-being” Friedman said.
“The silver lining of the pandemic for some families in the United Kingdom was the removal of typical barriers to spending time outside. For others, though, new barriers were encountered that meant they had to get creative with how they spent time outside. Understanding how connection to nature changed in these circumstances and the associations with emotional and behavioural problems in children can provide insight into activities that might support wellbeing.”
In undertaking the study, the research issued an online survey to 367 families in the UK with children aged between three and seven years of age. They collected responses between April and July of 2020.
More than half of the families surveyed said during the first half of lockdown in the UK, their child connected more with nature.
Almost two thirds of parents surveyed said their child’s connection to nature changed during the lockdown.
A third of children who spent less time in nature during lockdown experienced wellbeing related problems.
The researchers found that children who were able to connect with nature during lockdown may have been guarded against the negative effects of lockdowns.
The children who experienced an increased connection to nature spent time gardening, playing outside in the garden or engaging in outdoor physical activity. The researchers found that participation in such activities was linked to having more time for such things during lockdown.
The parents who reported their children had a decreased connection with nature said this was due to inability to access natural spaces outdoors because of travel restrictions in place during lockdown.
The researchers say their study could be helpful for policy makers who decide the rules for lockdowns in future. They argue restrictions should factor in the necessity of outdoor time for a child’s wellbeing.
“Our study lends support to the idea that nature might serve as a low-cost method of support for child wellbeing and contributes to a growing evidence base suggesting that spending time in nature and having a psychological connection to nature benefits mental health,” Friedman said.
If nature can serve as a low-cost support to promote wellbeing in children, engaging children with nature at school is likely to be important. Given that children spend much of their time at school, this would be an opportune time to ‘level the playing field’ and allow all children time in nature to reap the benefits. Investing money in lower SES areas to increase access to green space (through things like pocket parks and community gardens) is a more difficult but equally important option.”