Kids don’t get outside anymore. I mean, they do (sometimes), but this new age of technology has more children glued to screens than ever before. And to be fair, the games they have are incredibly addictive. (Seriously, have you played Bricks n Balls?) It’s easy to spend the better part of the day lost in a digital alternate reality. But research shows that spending more time outdoors can have an immensely positive effect on both children and adults. From reducing stress and depression to improving mood and cognitive development, getting out into nature is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental well-being.
What are Green Spaces?
Essentially, green spaces are exactly what they sound like – areas filled with grass, trees, flowers, etc. Green spaces have been shown to improve cognitive development, boost energy, enhance creativity, relieve stress, mitigate pain, and reduce the symptoms of mental illness. Green spaces are mutually exclusive from urban environments like cities and other highly-developed areas lacking in open spaces. Unfortunately, about 50% of the world’s population live in urban environments, a number that is expected to grow to 60% by 2030, creating an urgent need to improve access to green spaces and create new initiatives to get people outside.
The Benefits of Being Outdoors
There is a ton of research into the benefits of being in nature, which would take hours to cover here. Fortunately, you like nice, tidy lists, and that’s exactly what you’re going to get. While this list is not exhaustive, it should do well to convince you to put your phone down, take a break from House of Cards, and get outside.
>>Green spaces fight depression. In fact, a study published just a few months ago found that living near a green space was associated with more than a 41% decrease in depression. This study was unique because, rather than simply observing associations between green spaces and mental health, the researchers actually altered the environment for participants of the study by improving vacant lots.
In Philadelphia, where the research took place, one of three things happened:
The Pennsylvania Horticultural society cleared the trash, graded the land, and planted grass and trees in the first group of abandoned lots. The second group was cleared of trash, and a third group was left untouched. For participants of the study, the decrease in depression and increase in self-worth were significant, which should call us to action (but more on that towards the end).
>> Green spaces boost energy. A 2009 study published in The Journal of Environmental Psychology found that time spent outdoors increases overall vitality. Defined in the study as both physical and mental energy, vitality was evaluated in 5 separate studies containing over 500 participants. Although exercise and social interaction can also boost energy, the study found that time outside increased vitality independent of these factors. If you want to feel stronger and more alert, you don’t need to reach for the coffee. Just make some time for mother nature. As little as 15 minutes is all it takes.
>> Green spaces can protect and improve vision. An Australian study evaluating the relationship between time outdoors and impaired vision found that children who spent more time outside had reduced instances of nearsightedness. Once again, the study determined that time outside protected vision regardless of the level of physical activity performed. The takeaway? Whether playing sports or sitting on a park bench, simply getting outside can do your body wonders.
>> Green spaces improve immune function and fight cancer. You’ve probably never heard of Shinrinyoku. To be fair, neither had I until reading a 2010 study published in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine. It’s a Japanese word that means “forest bathing trip”. Though it initially sounds like some kind of nudist ritual, forest bathing simply refers to short, leisurely visits to the forest – and its benefits are powerful. Just a few short visits to the forest each week can significantly improve immune function and even help combat cancer.
To explain, I need to first introduce natural killer (NK) cells. NK cells are a type of white blood cell that can quickly identify damaged and cancerous cells, binding to the cells and destroying them. Hence the name “natural killer.” NK cells are considered an excellent marker of immune system performance. The better your immune system functions, the better your body is able to fight off infections and other illness.
Healthy immune function reduces the risk of developing cancer and other diseases. I’d say that warrants a few minutes each day strolling through the woods, wouldn’t you?
>> Green spaces can help mitigate pain. There are a few different ways in which this is true. The first is by reducing inflammation. In a Chinese study published in 2012 (also focused on forest bathing), subjects who spent time in nature had lower levels of inflammation and less oxidative stress. One could argue that inflammation is at the root of most disease, including cancer, autoimmune disease, and depression.
The second is sunlight. In addition to all the positive effects of vitamin D, sunlight has been shown to mitigate pain in surgery patients. Not only did they require less pain medication (which is great considering the scourge of opioid addiction and the side effects that come with most narcotic pain killers), they also reported less stress. Which is next on the list.
>> Green spaces can help relieve stress. We’ve talked about stress before. Almost everyone experiences stress to some degree, and it doesn’t discriminate. Men and women, students and professionals, young people and old all experience stress in their lives. But research shows that exposure to nature can help alleviate symptoms. Time in nature has been shown to be associated with lower heart rate and blood pressure, as well as lower levels of cortisol, which is a hormone used to tangibly measure stress levels.
In fact, even a good view of nature can help reduce stress. A 2006 study in Korea found that simply having a view of the forest through a window helps reduce stress and increase job satisfaction in office workers. Pretty neat, right?
>> Green spaces enhance creativity and improve cognitive function in children. This is a big one, as there’s been tons of research into the effects of green spaces vs urban spaces in childhood development. Not only does time in nature offer a myriad of benefits, time in urban spaces can be detrimental to children. That’s why getting kids outside is doubly important.
A 2015 study titled “Green spaces and cognitive development in primary schoolchildren” sheds light on just how beneficial time in nature truly is. But scientists can be nerdy, and the research is super-technical, so I’ll give you the summary. Essentially, the study found that exposure to green spaces (at home, school, or even during your daily commute) have a direct impact on cognitive development. What’s interesting here is that simply being outside wasn’t enough. Children need access to green spaces that are away from developed urban areas.
The study monitored 2,593 Spanish children aged 7-10 for over a year, evaluating their development at regular intervals. They evaluated working memory (the system that stores information), superior working memory (working memory that requires constant updating), and attentiveness. Students with greater access to green spaces had a working memory increase of nearly 23%, a superior working memory increase of over 15%, and an almost 20% decrease in inattentiveness.
What’s especially interesting is that the amount of green space at home didn’t seem to affect these measurements, but green spaces at school did. But even more significant was the role of air and noise pollution on development. As much as 65% of the link between green spaces and cognitive improvement may be attributed to the lack of pollutants in green environments.
The researchers also theorized that the benefits to mental health could explain the improvement in students with access to green spaces. There’s even a theory that, because we evolved in green spaces, we have a psychological need for them.
The connection between green spaces and childhood development is undeniable.
How green spaces improve our lives and the lives of our children isn’t the only important thing here. The benefits are well-documented. What’s more, getting kids outside helps them connect with nature, which can significantly improve their environmental awareness and stewardship. And let’s face it: we’ve really done a number on the earth. More than ever, we need younger generations to be committed to preserving the wonders of nature – before it’s too late.
Finally, there’s one last benefit that bears mentioning: social bonding. Experiences in nature help people to develop strong bonds with friends, family, and coworkers. That’s why Positive Adventures spends so much of our time working with youth out in nature instead of classrooms and crowded urban environments. So do it for the health benefits; do it for the psychological benefits; or do it for the memories; but turn off the TV, put down the phones, and take the kids to the park.
This kind of information should be informing public policy and social action. Write your representatives in government, in your community, and on your local school board. Push for more access to green spaces, school architecture focused on increasing vegetation and decreasing pollution, and policies that protect our natural resources like parks and lakes.
The world is becoming increasingly urban, and advances in technology are making it progressively easier to stay inside. Each one of us can make a difference. So put down your computer (or whatever device you’re using to read this), call the kids or a friend, and take a walk. Your body – and mind – will thank you.
As you can probably tell, we are pretty psyched about the outdoors. Whether you’re planning a company retreat, a staff training, or a youth outdoor education trip, we’ve got you covered. Join our mailing list to get monthly info, program updates, and our latest blogs.
References: Green spaces and cognitive development in primary schoolchildren Green Spaces Help Your Child’s Cognitive Development Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function Effects of short-term forest bathing on human health in a broad-leaved evergreen forest in Zhejiang Province, China. Outdoor activity reduces the prevalence of myopia in children. Effect of Greening Vacant Land on Mental Health of Community-Dwelling Adults Interacting with Nature Improves Cognition and Affect for Individuals with Depression The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature Why green spaces are good for your kid’s brain Being outside can improve memory, fight depression, and lower blood pressure — here are 12 science-backed reasons to spend more time outdoors The influence of forest view through a window on job satisfaction and job stress Memory Improved 20% by Nature Walk Getting back to the great outdoors What Green Spaces Can Do to Your Mood Replacing Vacant Lots With Green Spaces Can Ease Depression In Urban Communities