Why does nature matter to children? What’s the evidence?

Sowing the seeds literature review coverWhat happens when children spend time in natural environments – and what happens if they do not? What does the empirical evidence say? And what other insights might the research literature hold? These were the questions that I wanted to answer in my literature review [pdf link] for the Sowing the Seeds project – published on 17th November, alongside the main report.

Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods has forged a worldwide movement for reconnecting children with nature. His arguments are passionate and eloquent – but they may not be enough to persuade the as-yet unconvinced. Literature reviews can help make a stonger case. Which was why the London Sustainable Development Commission asked me to carry one out as part of the project.

I found at least 15 recent academic reviews of this topic. I wanted mine to add something new. So I took a systematic approach, similar to that used by the Civil Service. For a start, I focused on quantitative studies. While this inevitably only gives a partial picture, it tends to be of most interest to the sceptic, and to the policy maker. I also had clear inclusion criteria, which included an assessment of study quality. And I drew on independent academic input from Prof Catharine Ward Thompson, one of the UK’s leading experts on public space, and an experienced researcher in this field.

I found a total of 61 studies that, in different ways, added to the evidence base. These studies pointed to a range of benefits. The most significant fell under four broad headings: physical health; mental and emotional health; attitudes to nature and the environment; and scientific and environmental knowledge. Most of the studies showed links or correlations, rather than proving cause-and-effect. However, some used quasi-experimental methods that gave more direct, robust support for claims that contact with nature makes a real difference. Taken as a whole, the studies (to quote from the paper) “confirm that spending time in nature is part of a ‘balanced diet’ of childhood experiences that promote children’s healthy development, well-being and positive environmental attitudes and values.”

I also wanted to explore the significance of children’s style of engagement with nature. So I carried out one further analysis on the study set. I categorised the studies depending on whether the type of experience under study was more or less playful. ‘More playful’ styles included free play, leisure, child-initiated learning (such as in forest school) and freely chosen gardening activities and games. ‘Less playful’ styles included school gardening programmes, guided walks and field trips.

What I found was that studies that involved more playful engagement styles came up more often for almost all of the types of benefit – apart from scientific knowledge. The chart below shows this clearly. This finding underpins the main report’s recommendation that children’s engagement with nature needs to become more playful and hands-on.

Sowing the seeds chart: engagement style
Most people reading this post will need no persuading of the importance of nature in children’s lives, and of the particular value of hands-on, playful, child-directed experiences. Many of you see this every day in your work. But if the children and nature movement is to grow in size and influence, its arguments have to reach beyond the believers. My literature review should help that to happen. My goal is that, having read it, even the most hard-nosed politician or bureaucrat will accept in their heads what they probably already feel in their hearts: that nearby nature should be part of the texture and fabric of a good enough childhood.

All the papers from the project, including the literature review, full report and executive summary, are available to download from the London Sustainable Development Commission website.

Update 13 October 2014: a paper based on this literature review has been published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Children, Youth and Environments.

15 responses to “Why does nature matter to children? What’s the evidence?

  1. Tim – this is great, thanks. It’s good to see a clarity in the apporoach to a systematic review. Did you also consider what was defined as ‘nature’? I see in the lit review methodology that you included “woodlands, urban green public spaces, outdoor green domestic spaces, school grounds, including school gardens and wild areas that may be found in or near urban areas”. Did these have to be a specific size? What made them ‘natural’?

  2. This is great. As a grandmother, I am concerned about my grand babies generation. We were able to say to our kids, go play outdoors. As a child I spent most of my time ourdoors. Today, it takes a concerted effort because of our changing society. Thanks for your concerted effort to provide evidence that it is worthwhile for parents and caregivers to do so.

  3. Hi Wendy – thanks for the feedback. The main Sowing the Seeds report – see above link – touched on what is meant by nature; it quoted a Natural England definition (of sorts) that talks of ‘places where human control and activities are not intensive so that a feeling of naturalness is allowed to predominate’ (pp 35 ff). But I go on to say: “reflecting on the qualities of sites that are particularly relevant to children, two conclusions can be drawn. The first is that smaller sites may have untapped potential. Children, especially young children, can gain a sense of naturalness from places that are too small to foster the same response from adults. The second is that the importance of species diversity may be overemphasised. Sites that offer little of interest to the wildlife conservationist may nonetheless be ideal locations for children to play, learn, explore, have adventures and gain hands-on contact with nature.” Not a full definition (is this a realistic goal even?) but it takes the debate forward, I hope. The garden at Kate Greenaway Nursery in Islington is a superb example of a naturalistic space that would feel pretty unnatural to adults, with four storey flats looming all around. But it’s not hard to imagine how it would feel quite different to a 3 year old.

  4. I think there’s been a growing number of studies in the past 15 years in particular which all point to fairly similar conclusions. I’m a big fan of Frances Kuo and this blog post summarises her ideas… http://creativestarlearning.blogspot.com/2009/04/animal-behaviour-in-schools.html

    My favourite part is the final paragraph where she says, “So when people say: ‘As a scientist, would you say that we know this now? Do we know that people need nature?’ I say: ‘As a scientist I can’t tell you. I’m not ready to say that,’ ‘But as a mother who knows the scientific literature, I would say, yes.’ ”

    I actually think there’s a lot of gaps that still need to be looked at. For example, I so often see children who rarely talk inside, come out of their shell when freely playing in a natural space. I’d like to see a study that monitors language development this way.

    When I put together the outdoor learning resource pack for Education Scotland, I was very conscious of the need to pass on the research to schools in a digestible form. So the big document begins with loads of snippets to set the scene that being outdoors isn’t simply another initiative but is essential in all sorts of ways that benefits children. It takes time to read, but I’m quietly pleased that free play and time in contact with nature are themes running through the whole document – not explicitly but just as part of a general approach to meeting children’s needs and ensuring key aspects of Curriculum for Excellence are accounted for. Sorry to go on about this, but I think this is the first Scottish education document that has acknowledged either in an educational sense. http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/Images/outdoor_learning_support2_tcm4-675958.pdf

    • Hi Juliet, and thanks for such a full reply. You won’t be surprised to hear that several studies by Kuo and her collaborators feature in the study set. My paper acknowledges that there’s a lot of gaps in the research – and comes up with some ideas for filling these. Your document looks great – very user-friendly, and naturally I’m pleased to see the plug for risk-benefit!

  5. Tim it seems a shame to me that most of us that have happened upon your post will have done so as it is something which we strongly believe in, sadly there are many parents who could do with reading an article such as this but will not do so because it would mean that sticking your child in front of a computer game was not in their best interest.

    Although I feel nature is incredibly important, let us not forget that there is growing medical evidence that MS is linked to Vitamin D intake so there are so many positives to being outside; but also I feel parents are losing the ability to connect with their children on a creative level too. I started a business that aims to help parents and pre schoolers be creative together (www.littledoers.com) but when I meet parents at fairs, a lot of them seem annoyed that we promote being creative together, one lady last weekend even commented that “I don’t want to have to do things with my child”. How does she think a two year old will learn?

    Anyway I digress, a worthwhile article and I hope it lends more weight to the argument that nature is vital in child development. After all it seems that common sense has no place in this day and age; people seem to forget that we spent a huge proportion of our time out of doors until the Industrial Revolution.

  6. Hi Tim, this is very relevant to me right now as I am reading Richard Louv’s Lost Child in the Woods and his new book, The Nature Principle, because he has the interview slot for the spring issue of JUNO. As you say, his arguments are passionate and eloquent. To me, the benefits of being in nature seem so instinctive I sometimes find it hard to quantify them. Sowing the Seeds looks reallly exciting. Keep up the good work.

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  8. Excellent, Tim — thanks for sharing! I always find nature play to have quick and easy emotional appeal to adults, but policy leaders most often want something more quantitative before they will consider significant changes in their approaches. The Children & Nature Network (www.childrenandnature.org) has done a good job of pulling together research studies, but it’s great to have your additional data!

    • Thank you for your interest in the Nature Kindergarten pilot. We are honpig to begin a pilot class in September 2012. A school has not been identified at this time. You are welcome to attend a meeting if you are interested in becoming directly involved in the planning stages of this project. If you prefer to receive updates about where we are at, then viewing this blog from time to time would be most helpful.

  9. Beth, Saffia, Ken – thanks for these comments. Beth – good points about the other health benefits. Saffia – very exciting that you’ll be interviewing Richard Louv. He’s a charming, engaging and surprisingly unassuming man. I look forward to reading it. Ken – glad you agree we to need to have some numbers for the bean-counters (in another life I might have been one of them).

  10. Thanks Tim! I have downloaded all the files Tim and they look very relevant. Like the commenter above, I was also curious about the definition of nature…while I understand what nature should look like for kids, many municipalities believe a play structure amidst lawn is nature…and here in the US the ‘get outside’ movement is good but could go further to push for better quality play spaces, green school grounds and accessible ‘wild’ spaces. I would like to see a study comparing play activities, activity levels and ultimately, benefits to whole child development on standard equipment vs. non standard play environments…is there one out there???

  11. Pingback: Help build the policy case for play | Rethinking Childhood

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  13. Pingback: Back to the future: how London’s new mayor can reconnect children with nature | Rethinking Childhood

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