Contact with nature can improve mental health and people’s moods, studies are finding.
With the holiday season well underway, some people are enjoying outdoor life, especially walking and cycling.
Current thinking is that creating links with the environment benefits children in several ways, as well as sowing the seeds of life-long appreciation of the natural world around them. I know a one-year-old who gets excited at the sight of birds flitting from tree to tree and who tries to reach out to them whenever he sees them. Researchers from the UCD School of Geography, who mapped trees across Dublin City, found huge disparities in tree cover. For instance, Ballsbridge, in leafy Dublin 4, is 20 times more likely to have a tree on the street than the north inner city.
Which prompts the question: How can we expect children who have grown up in a nature-poor landscape to care for it in later life? Surely, every child should have the opportunity to experience nature and experts say the critical age is before 12 years.
Alannah Ní Cheallaigh-Mhuirí, of An Taisce, recently ran a pilot outdoor education workshop for five to six-year-olds from the north inner city, at Morehampton Grove Wildlife Sanctuary, a place which proves nature can flourish in cities and towns if given a small chance.
“For children, it [the sanctuary] is like the secret garden. These inner city children took to being ‘nature explorers’ like ducks to water, learning to differentiate between trees and exploring for creatures in the pond while being respectful and considerate about their impact,” she says. Such workshops will not be a regular occurrence in the sanctuary to avoid negative impacts for wildlife, but the pilot could be replicated in other green spaces around the country, Ms Ní Cheallaigh-Mhuirí suggests.
A report by UK’s National Trust found several benefits of developing a healthy relationship with nature at a young age, including areas such as health, education, communities and environment.
Health benefits include a decreased risk of childhood obesity, improved physical fitness, improved mental health and even longevity. In one study, exposure to nature resulted in a threefold improvement in children with attention deficit disorder, compared with staying indoors. There were also reductions in stress and aggressive behaviour in all.
Furthermore, contact with nature gave them a greater sense of self-worth. Even short-term experiences of nature make a marked impact on mental health. The report found just five minutes of ‘green exercise’ can improve mood and self-esteem by a significant margin.