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Children who could access nature during lockdown fared best

Children from less affluent backgrounds are likely to have found Covid-19 lockdowns more challenging to their mental health because they experienced a lower connection with nature than their wealthier peers, a new study suggests.

A study has found that children who increased their connection to nature during the first Covid-19 lockdown were likely to have lower levels of behavioural and emotional problems, compared to those whose connection to nature stayed the same or decreased – regardless of their socio-economic status.

The study, by researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Sussex, also found that children from affluent families tended to have increased their connection to nature during the pandemic more than their less affluent peers. 

Nearly two-thirds of parents reported a change in their child’s connection to nature during lockdown, while a third of children whose connection to nature decreased displayed increased problems of wellbeing, either through ‘acting out’ or by increased sadness or anxiety.

The results strengthen the case for nature as a low-cost method of mental health support for children, and suggest that more effort should be made to support children in connecting with nature – both at home and at school. 

The researchers’ suggestions for achieving this include: reducing the number of structured extracurricular activities for children to allow for more time outside, provision of gardening projects in schools, and funding for schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas, to implement nature-based learning programmes.

five children sitting on bench front of trees

The study, published in the journal People and Nature, also offers important guidance in relation to potential future restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘We know that access to and engagement with nature is associated with wide-ranging benefits in children and adults, including lowering levels of anxiety and depression, and reducing stress,’ said Samantha Friedman, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research, first author of the study.

She added: ‘The Covid-19 lockdowns meant that children no longer had their normal school activities, routines and social interactions. The removal of these barriers gave us a novel context to look at how changes in connection with nature affected mental health.

‘Connecting with nature may have helped buffer some UK children against the effects of the lockdown, but we found that children from less affluent families were less likely to have increased their connection to nature during that time.’

The study used an online survey to collect responses from 376 families in the UK, with children between three and seven years old, between April and July 2020.

This research was funded by Newnham College, University of Cambridge.

Photo Credit – Piron Guillaume

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