[Posted on 19 September, 2017 by Jakob Åsberg Johnels]
Few would question the absolutely crucial impact that relationships with other people have on the cognitive, social and emotional development of children. Investigations of autism and, to some extent, ADHD, include among other things a thorough mapping of social relationships, even from early infancy onward. Was the child interested in their parents and other people as an infant? How does the child relate to siblings and to age peers at preschool/school today? The answers to these questions often have a critical diagnostic and prognostic value. General pedagogical psychology theories also place – rightly so – central importance on relationships with other people, which manifests in scientific terms such as “attachment”, “shared attention”, “social brain”, “scaffolding” and “modelling”, terms frequently used by those of us who work and do research in the field of child neuropsychiatry.
But what about relationships with the non-human world, more specifically with nature? Does nature and experiences within it have any relevance for the development of children generally, and especially children with neuropsychiatric problems?
Some of my own very strongest memories of early childhood involve me being out in nature. I cannot actually quite remember what my day care teachers looked like or, with the odd exception perhaps, what their names were. But I can clearly recall the little wooded slope located right next to my day care. I can even coax out the taste of dirt and moss from my memories – I cannot have been much older than 1 when these impressions were stored. I remember how I, some years older, was captivated by a juniper bush that was located in a wooden grove between my day care and my house, because at dusk the bush could sometimes take on the shape of a lynx; one time I summoned the courage to walk all the way up to it, to see if the bush had in fact turned into a lynx, but of course it had not. I also remember, almost like it was yesterday, how I at the age of 6 caught my first perch with a fishing rod by a creek outside the community where we lived. I remember the tranquillity by the creek, and the excitement that followed when the bob suddenly disappeared. I remember the fish there in the grass, how I broke its neck and how I cried – from a combination of adrenaline-fuelled joy and guilt-riddled despair – as I carried it in my hand the way home.
I could continue endlessly describing memories like these. These encounters with “non-human” elements have continued to play a central role in my life. Being out in nature – by the sea, on a mountain, in parks near town or out in the woods, far away or close to home – has inspired and settled me for as long as I can remember, and these experiences always help me “gather” all of my thoughts and feelings, big and small. “To think that this was all I needed!” is a thought I have had many times after spending an hour or so of walking around in nature. I can honestly say that I would not be the person that I am without these experiences.
I am obviously not unique in this respect. On the contrary, when speaking to others, almost everyone tells similar stories, especially about how they “recharge their batteries” and consciously reduce stress by spending time in nature. A colleague of mine at the GNC expressed how she needed to spend time in nature in order to “straighten her mind out”. Literary history is filled with similar descriptions and the significance of nature for human well-being, even though both the character of the descriptions and the degree of romanticism about nature have varied throughout the years and different parts of the world. A quick search of PubMed and Google Scholar shows that researchers are also becoming increasingly interested in the psychological relationships between human beings and nature; the research literature frequently uses the term “nature connectedness” to describe this relationship.
The research on the health-promoting effects of nature has heretofore focused on adults. It is also important to point out that most of the research has been performed on small groups from the general population (or convenience samples), rather than on clinical groups. A walk in the woods is hardly a miracle cure for poor mental health.
Even so, the current research is very interesting: studies have for example shown that spending time in nature, and “nature connectedness”, are associated with generally higher estimations of quality of life and sense of vitality (Pretty et al., 2017). Experimental studies have shown that people on average perform better on tests of executive functions and creativity, that they exhibit physiological reductions in stress levels, that they sleep better at night and generally report that they feel a bit happier after having spent time in the great outdoors. Studies have also produced empirical evidence of my own perception that nature-related experiences can, to some extent, help people handle life problems of a “social” variety, and ease unproductive dwelling (rumination), which has even been observable in terms of brain activity (Bratman et al., 2015).
As for research on children and nature, studies are still surprisingly scarce. In a new book titled “How to raise a wild child”, the dinosaur scientist (sic) Scott Sampson has summarised what the current state of knowledge is within the field. He explains that his motive for writing the book is a clear trend in the U.S. and the rest of the West, where children are spending less and less time outdoors, especially engaging in free play in natural environments. Sampson argues that this is not just a problem with regard to the children’s immediate (physical and psychological), but one that concerns the entire future of the planet, because if coming generations are not going to spend time in nature, they are not going to learn to love and protect it either.
Sampson also speculates that lack of experiences in nature and “nature connectedness” might cause exacerbation of neuropsychiatric symptoms as well. Even though I would personally love to see many more and better studies on this subject before I make any bold proclamations, there is already some research implying that this issue certainly calls for further interest. In one notable study (Faber Taylor, 2009) on children with ADHD, a small number of children were randomly assigned to take a walk in either a verdant park or a highly trafficked urban environment. The children were then tested to measure their working memory and concentration. The results clearly showed that the children performed better after walking in the park. Another study (Kuo & Faber Taylor, 2004) had parents of children diagnosed with ADHD scoring their children’s symptoms at repeated occasions after they had finished different activities of their own choosing during the afternoon. The results showed that the children’s ADHD symptoms were characterised as less severe during evenings when the children had spent the afternoons being active in natural settings. As for autism and autism spectrum disorders I have, however, been unable to find any study done regarding “nature connectedness” and the significance of spending time in nature. I do not know of any research studying experiences in nature and anorexia either, but recently completed studies have shown that people, both men and women, who spend a lot of time in nature have a more positive view of their own body, and that this correlation seems to be due to a common increase in “nature connectedness” (Swami et al., 2016).
I believe it is high time that those of us who work with the well-being and functioning of children and adolescents start to recognise, in terms of research and policy-making, as well as in clinical and educational practice, not just the significance of other people and social relationships for a person’s ability to flourish, but also the significance of relating to the natural world.