Why Being in Nature Supports Your Baby’s Development

As parents, we’re familiar with the idea that being outside in nature is important for our children’s health and wellbeing, but do we really know why?

Over the last couple decades, a large number of researchers have explored the relationship between early childhood development and nature, with findings showing that exposure to green spaces brings major benefits in all of the key areas of development, including cognitive, social, emotional and physical development1.

Better long-term physical health

Time spent in green, leafy areas gives babies and children a much-needed opportunity to breathe in clean, fresh air and take a break from the air pollution of cities and built-up areas. Researchers have noted that air pollutants like car emissions and dust can be highly damaging to little ones’ developing bodies, potentially triggering conditions such as asthma2. This makes it particularly important to prioritise playtime in the garden, park outings, and walks in nature, even with newborns.

A leading professor in the field of environmental science3 has also found that young children who frequently spend time in nature are more active and less inclined to suffer from childhood obesity as they grow older. An additional physical benefit noted in a Swedish study4 is that young children who are frequently surrounded by nature show better motor coordination than those who remain in ‘barren’ environments without any greenery.

Keeping little ones calm and collected

The noise and crowding of urban environments is closely linked to mental fatigue and aggressive behaviour5. However, mental fatigue is substantially reduced by spending time in ‘natural settings’ or even indoor settings with views of nature. This applies not only to adults, but babies and children too, as they are also susceptible to emotional stress and mental fatigue caused by their environments. Indeed, research has shown that children have lower stress levels and show less aggression if they enjoy regular access to green spaces6.

Important for cognitive development

Studies by Dr Stephen R. Kellert7 of Yale University have found that playtime in nature is critical to developing “attentional functionality” in children, which includes working memory, problem-solving abilities, and reasoning, all of which are key cognitive skills.

Infants and children who grow up in green settings also show heightened concentration abilities and greater attention capacity8. In fact, it is noted that even views of nature can improve concentration ability.

Better social and communication skills

With green surroundings proven to lower stress and aggression levels, it comes as little surprise that children who spend a great deal of time in nature during their early development demonstrate better social skills and increased social interaction with children and adults9. Pyle10 suggests that this is because playing in nature promotes the development of language and communication abilities, and encourages positive relationships. 

Stimulating creativity

As highlighted in a report by the UK’s National Children’s Bureau – entitled ‘Play, naturally: A review of children’s natural play’11 – the natural environment offers a rich backdrop to little ones’ imaginations, providing countless opportunities for discovery, surprise and engagement.

Unlike a sparse indoor environment, the green outdoors are filled with objects that support pretend play, from twigs, leaves and flowers to tree roots, streams, rocks and bugs. This makes nature a highly stimulating environment for toddlers and young children in particular. Kellert12 notes that with such a diverse, exciting landscape for play, children are better able to develop their creativity through dynamic imaginative playtime.

Going green

Even if you aren’t able to explore the Sussex Downs or the Scottish Highlands every weekend, this doesn’t mean your little ones can’t enjoy all the developmental benefits of being in nature. Try spending a relaxing afternoon with your infant in a leafy neighbourhood park, or have your toddler take pretend play sets out into the garden. What’s most important is fostering a lifelong love of the outdoors in your children, and spending as much time as possible in whatever natural, green environment is available to you from the moment your baby is born.

 

References:

Bixler, R.D., Floyd, M.E., and Hammutt, W.E. 2002. Environmental socialization: Qualitative tests of the childhood play hypothesis. Environment and Behavior.  34, pp.795–818.

Faber Taylor, A. and Kuo, F.E. 2006. Is contact with nature important for healthy child development? State of the evidence. In: C. Spencer and M. Blades, eds. 2006 Children and Their Environments: Learning, using and designing spaces. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.124–14.

Faber Taylor, A., Kuo, F.E., Sullivan, W.C. 2001 Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment and Behavior.  33, pp.54–77.

Frumkin, H. 2005. Health equity and the built environment. Environmental Health Perspectives. 113(5), A290–A291.

Grahn, P., Martensson, F., Lindblad, B., Nilsson, P., Ekman, A. 1997. UTE pa DAGIS, Stad & Land nr. 93/1991 Alnarp: Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet.

Kaplan, S. and Kaplan, R. 1989. The Experience of Nature: A psychological perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaplan S. 1995. The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology.  15, pp.169–182.

Kellert, R.S. 2005. Building for Life: Designing and understanding the human-nature connection. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Kuo, F.E. and Sullivan, W.C. 2001. Aggression and violence in the inner city: Effects of environment via mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior. 33(4), pp.543–571.

Pyle, R. 2002. Eden in a vacant lot: Special places, species and kids in community of life. In: P.H. Kahn and S.R. Kellert, eds. 2002 Children and Nature: Psychological, sociocultural and evolutionary investigations. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp.305–327.

Strife, S. and Downey, L. 2009. Childhood Development and Access to Nature. Organ Environment. 22(1), pp.99–122.



[2] Strife and Downey (2009).

[3] Frumkin (2005).

[5] Kuo and Sullivan (2001).

 

[6] Faber Taylor and Kuo (2006), Kellert (2005).

[7] Kellert (2005).

[8] Grahn et al. (1997), Strife and Downey (2009).

[10] Pyle (2002).

[12] Kellert (2005).