A new Hong Kong study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, finds that when preschoolers are connected to nature, they have fewer behavioral and emotional difficulties, show improved prosocial behaviors and are less distressed and hyperactive.
Previous research has shown that children who live in areas with less green space may be at greater risk for symptoms of stress, depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In fact, 16 percent of preschoolers in Hong Kong and up to 22 percent in China show signs of mental health problems.
But in Hong Kong, even though 90 percent of the population lives within 400 meters (1,312 feet) of green spaces, families don’t seem to be using these areas, say the researchers.
“We noticed a tendency where parents are avoiding nature. They perceive it as dirty and dangerous, and their children unfortunately pick up these attitudes. In addition, the green areas are often unwelcoming with signs like “Keep off the grass,” said Dr. Tanja Sobko from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong.
Sobko and her collaborator Professor Gavin Brown, Director of the Quantitative Data Analysis and Research Unit at the University of Auckland in New Zealand developed a new 16-item parent questionnaire to measure “connectedness to nature” in very young children.
The questionnaire identified four areas that reflect the child-nature relationship: enjoyment of nature, empathy for nature, responsibility toward nature, and awareness of nature.
Altogether, 493 families with children aged between 2 and 5 have participated in the study. The new questionnaire was tested against the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, a well-established measurement of psychological well-being and children’s behavior problems.
The results show that parents who reported their child as being more connected to nature had kids who were less distressed, less hyperactive, had fewer behavioral and emotional difficulties, and improved prosocial behavior.
Interestingly, children who took greater responsibility toward nature had fewer peer difficulties. The findings offer a new possibility for investigating the link between the outdoor environment and well-being in preschool children.
The study is part of Sobko’s research-based program Play&Grow, which is the first in Hong Kong to promote healthy eating and active playtime with preschool children by connecting them to nature. Launched in 2016, it has so far included almost 1,000 families from all over Hong Kong.
The new scale has already attracted international attention and is being adopted by universities worldwide including Western Australia and Deakin Universities.
Source: The University of Hong Kong