What 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.
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.