Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash
By Dr Birgitta Gatersleben
Engaging with nature benefits human health and wellbeing. Walking in nature, gardening, sitting on a park bench and even watching nature through a window have all been shown to be beneficial (Twohig-Bennett & Jones, 2018). Engaging with nature can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve cognitive functioning, build self-esteem and confidence and improve physical health (Bowler, et al., 2010; Hartig, et al., 2014).
Young people and nature
Engaging with nature not only benefits adults. Evidence shows that young people who spent more time in and near natural environments are in better mental health. For instance, Li and colleagues (2018) tracked the movements and mood of 155 adolescents using GPS systems and found a significant positive correlation between the amount of green space the adolescents were exposed to and the extent to which they reported being in a positive mood. These effects were independent of socio-economic status and gender.
In a similar way Wells et al (2003) found that children (aged 8 to 12) coped better with stressful life events when they lived near natural spaces. Even short term exposure to nature can benefit young people’s wellbeing. Greenwood & Gatersleben (2016) asked 120 16-18 year olds to conduct a range of stressor tasks and then randomly allocated them to rest (either alone, with their phone or with a friend) in a classroom (indoors) or in a green courtyard. Stress recovery was significantly greater outdoors than indoors, especially when young people were with a friend.
Walking in nature
Active engagement with nature such as walking through natural environments or gardening are particularly beneficial. Olafsdottir et al (2020) randomly allocated University students to either walk in nature, walk indoors (in a gym) or passively view a nature film on television and found that walking in nature resulted in significantly greater improvements in physiological and mental wellbeing than walking indoors or watching a nature film. These benefits were particularly prominent during stressful times (exam periods).
The benefits of walking in nature have been shown to benefit healthy populations as well as people suffering from a range of mental health issues. For example, Berman and colleagues (2012) asked 20 adults suffering from major depressive disorders to take a 50 minute walk in a natural or a build environment and found that the walk through nature was significantly more beneficial in supporting improvements in working memory and positive affect.
The benefits of gardening include reducing depression and anxiety, promoting recovery from stress and helping people to develop social relationships (Cipriani, et al., 2017; Soga, et al. 2017). Gardening can offer these benefits by providing a distraction from every day stressors and demands, by immersing people in nature, promoting physical activity, encouraging social interactions, and providing a sense of purpose and meaning.
Van Lier et al (2016) conducted a survey among 8,500 secondary school children in New Zeeland and found that those involved in gardening at home were of better physical and mental health and had more positive family relationships. Frequent gardening is clearly beneficial but even relatively short gardening sessions can benefit wellbeing. Van den Berg et al (2011), randomly allocated 30 gardeners to either spend 30 minutes attending to their allotments or 30 minutes reading on their own allotment plot. Continuous monitoring of cortisol levels and self-reported mood showed that gardening was significantly more effective in improving mood and reducing stress than reading.
Longer term gardening interventions have been shown to benefit health and wellbeing well after the intervention has finished. Gonzales et al (2010), for instance, found significant improvements in mental wellbeing among 29 participants with clinical depression who participated in a 12-week horticultural intervention. These positive effects were still present 3 months after the intervention.
A garden to support the mental health of young people
Mental health can broadly be defined as “the capacity of each of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face”. Being in good mental health means that people thrive and fulfil their potential. In the UK, around a quarter of adults experience at least one mental health problem in any given year (MHF, 2017). Almost half of these mental health problems have been established by the age of 14 and three quarters before adulthood (Kessler et al., 2007).
Mental health problems among young people are associated with a range of problems such as social pressure, bullying, obesity, substance abuse and inequality. Providing young people with a break from these pressures, allowing them to escape, boosting their resilience and supporting stress recovery is extremely important. The opportunity to actively engage with gardening activities either alone or with others or to simply sit in garden and watch the flowers or listen to the birds can hugely benefit their mental wellbeing.
Dr Birgitta Gatersleben
Birgitta is a Professor in Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey and studies the relationship between human wellbeing and the physical environment.
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