BY FREYA LUCASMARCH
Children who grow up without being surrounded by greenery, and having ready access to natural environments, have up to 55 per cent higher risk of developing mental health disorders later in life, scientists in Denmark have found.
The Australian context
The findings will be of interest to the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector, with increasing calls of concern about children being restricted to indoor spaces in office buildings and exposed to more screen time.
Regulation 113 of the Education and Care Services National Regulations stipulates that approved providers of centre based ECEC services must ensure that the outdoor spaces provided at the education and care service premises allow children to explore and experience the natural environment.
In providing guidance to services in Victoria to support the meeting of Regulation 113, and elements of the National Quality Framework, such as Quality Area Three, the Victorian Department of Education and Training offers the following:
An interesting and dynamic outdoor play space with natural features adds stimulation and creates variety for learning. It allows children to explore and experience the natural environment.
These spaces invite open ended interactions, spontaneity, risk taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature. They foster an appreciation of the natural environment, develop environmental awareness and provide a platform for ongoing environmental education.
Outdoor spaces should include a range of different natural features such as sand, soil, grass, a variety of different plantings and trees. It is not enough for children to look at trees and plants in education and care services, they must be able to actively explore, engage with, and experience different types of natural environments.
This means allowing children to touch and interact with the natural environment in their everyday play. This fact sheet provides some ideas for setting up and using natural environments in an approved education and care service.
With an increasingly larger share of the world’s population now residing in cities, the findings also have an impact for those charged with designing city scapes and residential areas. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 450 million people around the world suffer with a mental health disorder.
Using satellite data gathered from 1985 to 2013, the researchers from Aarhus University mapped the presence of green space around the childhood homes of one million Danish children, comparing their data with the risk of developing one of 16 different mental health disorders later in life.
The researchers found that children surrounded by low amounts of green space in childhood had an up to 55 per cent higher risk of developing a mental health disorder even after adjusting for other known risk factors such as socioeconomic status, urbanisation, and the family history of mental disorders.
Lead researcher, Kristine Engemann from Department of Bioscience and the National Centre for Register-based Research at Aarhus University, said:
“With our dataset, we show that the risk of developing a mental disorder decreases incrementally the longer you have been surrounded by green space from birth and up to the age of 10. Green space throughout childhood is therefore extremely important,”
Citing the role that noise, air pollution, infections and poor socio-economic conditions have in increasing the risk levels of developing a mental disorder, the researchers pointed out the solution lay in having more green space in the local area which creates greater social cohesion and increases people’s physical activity level.
Ms Engemann said the findings are a “robust indication of a close relationship between green space, urban life, and mental disorders.”
“There is increasing evidence that the natural environment plays a larger role for mental health than previously thought. Our study is important in giving us a better understanding of its importance across the broader population.” she added.