Spending more time in nature is a powerful way to improve your child’s quality of life and its development, according to new research from the University of British Columbia.

Although the findings are unlikely to surprise anybody lucky enough to have led an active outdoors life as a child, or to have already raised their own children in such a manner, they come at an opportune moment, as huge numbers of children suffer the ill-effects of long-term confinement and isolation indoors.

They also chime with recent research which has shown the benefits for adults of spending time in nature in something resembling the manner of our paleolithic ancestors.

Nature knows best: the value of a childhood outdoors

From the film Stand by Me (1986): just boys being dudes, out in nature

The study, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, suggests that living in areas surrounded by more natural green spaces gives children an advantage as they grow and develop.

The team conducted its research by analyzing developmental scores from just over 27,000 children who lived in the Metro Vancouver area and attended kindergarten between 2005 and 2011. The authors then went on to estimate the amount of green space surrounding each child’s home from the time of their birth to the age of five. They also factored in estimations of traffic-related air pollution and community noise levels, when they came to reach their conclusions

“Most of the children were doing well in their development, in terms of language skills, cognitive capacity, socialization and other outcomes,” says study author Ingrid Jarvis, a PhD candidate in the department of forest and conservation sciences at UBC, in a university release. “But what’s interesting is that those children living in a residential location with more vegetation and richer natural environments showed better overall development than their peers with less green space.”

The research team believes some of the benefits likely have a connection to green spaces’ ability to mitigate the harmful impact of both air pollution and excess noise. Both air and noise pollution can impede and adversely affect a child’s overall health and development by triggering stress, sleep problems, and even damage to the central nervous system.

“Few studies have investigated this pathway linking green space and developmental outcomes among children, and we believe this is the first Canadian study to do so,” Jarvis adds.

The team measured childhood development using the Early Development Instrument (EDI), a survey which is completed by each child’s kindergarten teacher. The questionnaire is used to assess a child’s ability to meet the developmental expectations for their age, and is thought to provide an accurate measure.

“More research is needed, but our findings suggest that urban planning efforts to increase green space in residential neighborhoods and around schools are beneficial for early childhood development, with potential health benefits throughout life,” concludes senior study author and UBC research associate, Matilda van den Bosch.

“Time in nature can benefit everyone, but if we want our children to have a good head start, it’s important to provide an enriching environment through nature contact. Access to green space from a very young age can help ensure good social, emotional and mental development among children.”

Return to tradition? Spending time in nature like a caveman can be seriously good for you

the great outdoors

While you probably shouldn’t go out and hunt your evening meal with a stone club and bow and arrow, mimicking some of the conditions our paleolithic ancestors endured could be extremely good for you, as new research shows.

According to researcher Jens Freese and others, spending time living “in paleolithic conditions” in the wild may help to reduce chronic stress and make you a healthier person.

“Chronic stress has become a central problem of our modern society,” the researchers explain. While adaptation to stress is an “integral part of human evolution”, recent drastic changes to environmental conditions over the last 12,000 years, with the dawn of agriculture, and especially in the last 150 years with industrialisation, have made stress a chronic part of everyday life. 

Where our ancient ancestors were “more exposed to acutely life-threatening stress stimuli” – think an unexpected encounter with a sabre-tooth tiger or cave bear – the ‘psychosocial stressors’ of modern life are ‘more chronically enduring’. It’s well established that chronic stress is regulated to numerous conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes and depression. Chronic stress, including chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, also makes it more difficult to build muscle and even in severe cases lead to muscle wasting.


One thing the study didn’t consider in any depth was the role of exercise and how it might be linked to access to green space and nature. A recent study out of Japan showed that children who exercise in early life develop greater cognitive potential later in life.

Without going into unnecessarily complicated detail, the researchers found the following:

  • People who are physically active during childhood (up to 12 years of age) have higher cognitive functions in later life.
  • However, there was no find a correlation between cognitive function and post-childhood physical activity.
  • The positive association between childhood exercise and cognitive function was evident in the modular segregation of brain networks, strengthened inter-hemispheric connectivity, greater cortical thickness, lower levels of dendritic arborization and decreased density.

During childhood, the formation of the brain’s networks are susceptible to environmental and experience-related factors. The Japanese researchers believe that exercise during this period optimizes brain network development, with clear ramifications for cognitive function in later life.

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