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What's The Connection Between Nature And Children's Mental Health?

small boys playing outside
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"Sometimes just what the doctor ordered might be a tree or a patch of lawn, maybe the chance to walk in the woods. Nearly a decade ago now, journalist Richard Louv coined the term “Nature deficit disorder.” That’s the idea that kids are spending a lot more time staring at screens, and a lot less time outside exploring natural areas such as creeks and meadows or even just small neighborhood parks."

Andrea Faber Taylor started her career as a horticulturalist but for the past decade she has been focusing on the interaction between people and nature. She started with Richard Louv’s premise, then applied conventional psychological tools to see if a dose of nature could actually help a child’s cognitive functioning.

Faber Taylor: We were looking at spaces, building off of that theory. Nature has that capacity or any kind of green elements have that capacity to restore and recover, then in theory, having a view of a green space should help people be better off.

Lewis: Faber Taylor is a visiting teaching associate on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For one study, she wanted to find out if just having a view of nature had any impact on a child’s attention span and ability to concentrate.

Faber Taylor: For the girls, seven to twelve years old, in that population having a greener view outside of their apartment (on a scale of zero being barren up to five being very green), the greener the view the higher they scored on all of those measures. It suggested to us that even a few trees really matter and make a difference, a contribution.

Lewis: Another experiment was quite controlled, leading young children on walks.

Faber Taylor: Each child went on three walks on three different occasions and each time in a different setting. Either a park setting, a quiet downtown setting, or a neighborhood setting. After the children walked in the park, they scored higher on that measure than after either the downtown or neighborhood walks. It’s not just nostalgia, we aren’t just trying to hold onto romantic ideas about childhood, but there’s actual research evidence now that links or shows a relationship between being outdoors in a green space and higher levels of functioning on measures that really matter like being able to pay attention.

Lewis: So really what’s the difference, if you’re looking out the window at a tree instead of a building?

Faber Taylor: Looking at a brick wall doesn’t really engage your mind in the same way as a tree can. Even if that’s all you can see out the window is the top of a tree. It has depth, it has shadows, it has maybe a squirrel or a bird and the light flickers through it. What you’re experiencing, either physical immersion or just a view in a natural setting, it gives you the opportunity to engage in reflective thinking.