Lush Times columnist Miles King explores how crucial green spaces are to the wellbeing of children, especially in today’s digital world.
It’s fair to say that as a society we are only just waking up to the problems our children and young adults face. To what extent the mental health crisis facing children is linked to increasing social media use is debatable, though some evidence does point towards its damaging effect - particularly on those who may already be vulnerable to the insidious features deliberately designed into some platforms, with Instagram coming under special scrutiny recently. With this in mind, it’s incumbent on us all to consider what we can do, both individually and as a society.
We know, both instinctively, and from scientific evidence, that there are things which improve wellbeing, and therefore mental health. These include taking part in group activities - whether be sport or drama and the arts. But what about being in Nature? We tend to assume that being in nature will be good for everyone’s well-being and recent evidence looking specifically at Children and Young Adults is showing how important this is.
Monitoring Engagement in the Natural Environment - or MENE as it’s known, is a project which has been running for exactly 10 years now - it’s unusual as a survivor from before the Tory government took over in 2010, when everything changed, as I explored in a previous piece (link to NE article). The MENE project does something very simple, but also quite radical - it uses standard market research techniques (face to face surveys) to find out the general public’s perceptions of nature and the natural environment, asking people how often they visit places where they will find some aspect of nature, why they make those visits, and how it makes them feel. Read more about the 10 years of work here. This is a significant piece of work, and after 10 years it’s possible to see how people’s attitudes towards and time spent in nature is changing.
The recent MENE report exploring young people’s attitudes towards nature and the natural environment throws up some results which should surprise no-one, but also some unexpected and perhaps worrying signals, particularly in relation to the benefits being in nature provides for young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Nearly three quarters of children experience nature (beyond their gardens, which are excluded from the survey) in urban parks and other kinds of green space, mostly in the company of adults. The number of children who are playing or being outdoors without adults has declined dramatically over the past 50 years and this is reflected in the MENE results which found only 18% of children (under 16) were outdoors in a natural environment without adults, and only 6% on their own. Being in nature clearly improves children and young people’s wellbeing, and two thirds of children under 16 agreed with the phrase that “being in nature makes me very happy”. Interestingly this figure dropped to 56% for teenagers and young adults - and this ties in with a general perception that teenagers become more removed from an interest in nature as other pressures crowd in on their time, focus and energy.
With a large sample of carefully selected contributors, the MENE researchers were able to explore social and ethnic differences - for example finding that children in poorer neighbourhoods were spending significantly less time in urban green spaces, as were children from BAME communities, especially those from Asian backgrounds - 73% of children from white British backgrounds were spending once a week outside in nature, compared with only 51% from Asian backgrounds - a startling difference. In households with dogs, children were consistently spending more time outside without an adult, than children in households without dogs, as you would expect. The difference is most marked for 13 year old children where 42% were making visits walking the dog, compared with 32% without dogs. At the same time the MENE survey is finding that visits by older children (aged 10-15) to nature, without adults, are decreasing at a surprising rate - down from 45% in 2013-14 to 39% in 2017-18. This may be partly due to parents’ concerns about safety, for example having to cross busy roads to get to the park. However it may also be due to children spending more time indoors, for example gaming or on social media.
What MENE does not do is really tease apart the different elements of nature in urban green spaces, to identify which particular attributes make the most contribution towards children’s wellbeing. Is it, for example, the opportunity to watch that ubiquitous but unloved (by Defra) urban mammal, the Grey squirrel? Or is it related to the number and size of trees, as I expect the Woodland Trust would want us to believe - or is it something more complex related to the structural complexity provided by a range of different features including large trees, shrubs and areas with flowers and butterflies - or some other factor such as opportunities to climb trees or build dens. While I’m not suggesting we engineer every greenspace to maximise children’s wellbeing, it would certainly be useful to know how these different factors inter-relate to each other.
The other question it raises is whether there is enough greenery in our cities and towns. The MENE results showing that children spend less time in nature in poorer areas may simply reflect the fact that there are fewer green areas in poorer neighbourhoods - and that Councils have less money to spend managing them - for example in ways which encourage more nature. Cash strapped councils are being forced to sell off more and more land and buildings to make up for the Central Government funding which has been withdrawn over the last 10 years - meaning that, at least in some areas, there are now fewer green areas for children to visit, or those that are available are neglected, making them less attractive. A similar impact is produced by schools being forced to sell off playing fields to pay for new buildings or cover budget deficits.
One thing seems certain - getting children out into nature is good for their mental health and their overall wellbeing - and we can all do our bit to encourage this. Ultimately though, if the parks and greenspaces aren’t there, or are not welcoming, then our children will not be able to benefit from the experiences with nature they provide.