Green spaces can improve the mental health of young children

April 30, 2024

At a glance

  • The researchers found that young children (ages two to five) who lived in areas with more green spaces had fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • The results suggest that children’s access to green spaces can influence certain mental health risks.

Mental health problems affect millions of children in the US, and some have been on the rise recently. Symptoms of mental health disorders fall into two categories: internalizing (staying inside) and externalizing (acting out). Examples of internalizing symptoms include anxiety and depression. Examples of externalizing symptoms are aggression and rule breaking.

Evidence suggests that exposure to green spaces is associated with improved mood and a reduced risk of mental disorders. But most research has been limited to one or a few cities at a time and has focused on adolescent and adult health. Few studies have looked at whether green space is associated with mental health symptoms in children.

A team of researchers from the NIH’s Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program, led by Dr. Nissa Towe-Goodman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, aimed to address this gap. They studied more than 2,000 children born between 2007 and 2013 and living in nearly 200 counties in 41 states.

The team used satellite imagery to estimate the density of living vegetation up to three-quarters of a mile around each child’s home. Parents reported children’s internalizing and externalizing symptoms using standard checklists. The researchers looked for associations between green space and symptoms in early childhood (ages two to five) and middle childhood (ages six to eleven). The results appeared in Open JAMA Network on April 10, 2024.

Green space around the home was associated with fewer internalizing and externalizing symptoms in early childhood. For internalizing symptoms, the association remained strong after controlling for child sex, prematurity, parental education, age at birth, and neighborhood socioeconomic vulnerability. For externalizing symptoms, taking these factors into account, especially neighborhood socioeconomic vulnerability, reduced the association with green space.

No relationships were found between green space and any symptoms during middle childhood. Researchers suggest this may be because children in this age group spend more time at school and less time at home.

The findings suggest that improving access to green spaces could be good for the mental health of children across the country. Ways to do this include parks, urban forestry programs, and protected natural areas. The researchers recommend further research to confirm whether increasing access to green space leads to better mental health in children.

Our research supports existing evidence that being in nature is good for children, says Towe-Goodman. It also suggests that the early childhood years are a crucial time for exposure to green spaces.

by Brian Doctrow, Ph.D.

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References: Green space and internalizing or externalizing symptoms among children. Towe-Goodman N, McArthur KL, Willoughby M, Swingler MM, Wychgram C, Just AC, Kloog I, Bennett DH, Berry D, Hazlehurst MF, James P, Jimenez MP, Lai JS, Leve LD, Gatzke-Kopp L, Schweitzer JB, Bekelman TA, Calub C, Carnell S, Deoni S, D’Sa V, Kelly C, Koinis-Mitchell D, Petriello M, Thapaliya G, Wright RJ, Zhang X, Kress AM; Collaborators of the program Environmental influences on child health outcomes. JAMA Netw Open. 2024 Apr 1;7(4):e245742. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2024.5742.PMID:38598238.

Funding: Office of the Director (OD) of NIH and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

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