Try as we might, we can’t protect our children from all of the harm in the world, neither as children nor as adults. And in the age of digital media and seamless screened-in lives, we have even less control over the influences our children will fall under. Of course, there are ways to provide your kids with tools to help them make wise choices in life— tools such as self-reliance, critical thinking, confidence, and empathy.
But what if there was a pretty reliable way of improving your child’s chance of being happy as an adult? How valuable would that be to you? More valuable than any SAT prep course? Gymnastics tuition? Or would it be priceless?
Fortunately for parents, there is a way to increase your child’s odds of being a happy adult AND it’s free. Because it’s nature.
In one of the most exciting studies published in the past few years, researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark found that children who grow up near nature experience a lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood by 15-55%. Even better, the more time children spend in nature, the better their mental health outcomes.
The study is not just a quick snapshot with a small sample size either. This robust study was conducted over several decades (from 1985 until 2013) in which the researchers combed data from one million Danish residents. The researchers looked at data including income, educational level and family history of mental illness. To figure out how much green space the study subjects grew up with, researchers used decades of satellite imagery to identify green space around the subjects’ residences.
Once the researchers controlled for socioeconomic factors, they found that the strength of the association between green space and risk of psychiatric disorder was similar to other factors known to influence mental health, such as socioeconomic status. Meaning, growing up near nature protected the child’s mental health through adulthood just as much as growing up wealthier and among a higher social class.
As far as what kind of nature most benefited the kids, that didn’t seem to matter. The subject could live near a public park, have their own backyard or live near a community garden. All offered benefits for mental health later in life. And the study showed that kids could grow up in very urban areas but still have reduced risk if surrounded by green spaces.
Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, called the study impressive in an interview with NPR. "If we were talking about a new medicine that had this kind of effect the buzz would be huge, but these results suggest that being able to go for a walk in the park as a kid is just as impactful.”.
So when thinking about your next home, make sure green space is high on the priority list. While a fully updated kitchen or a laundry room may make life more convenient, the benefits that nature brings is priceless.