Researchers from the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE reported in November at the Child Rights Forum about their review, which explores what is known about the importance of nature for the wellbeing of children.

Children’s relationship to nature has a multidimensional, holistic connection to health and wellbeing. Both research and resources are needed to support children’s everyday interactive relationship with nature. It is equally important to trust children as independent actors in defining and building a relationship with nature.

This is said by researchers from the Finnish Environment Insitute (SYKE) Riikka Paloniemi, Marianne Aulake and Terhi Arola, who reported on the importance of nature relationship for children’s wellbeing at the Child Rights Forum ÄÄNI21 event on 12 November in Helsinki.

They presented a review based on research literature, which has been conducted by researcher Anna Ott among others. The review is part of a project funded by the Alli Paasikivi Foundation and Itla Children’s Foundation and jointly produced with SYKE’s research group.

The interest in children’s relationship to nature has increased considerably in recent years. The relationship with nature changes with urbanisation, digitalisation and the impoverishment of biodiversity. The researches posed the question of what the effects of this change are on the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents.

Recently, more and more articles have been published in which both quantitative and qualitative methods have been used to study the effects of nature on wellbeing and health. The review is based on 21 core articles selected amongst a total of 1,760 international articles on the children’s relationship with nature. The review had three dimensions of health: physical, mental and social.

The need for a review arose from a desire to bring together scattered research data and to identify the basis for further research and practical measures. The key main finding of the studies is that there is a link between the relationship to nature and wellbeing.

“Most of them utilised a positive outlook as the starting point. All articles found a connection between health and the relationship with nature. Only a few articles focused on looking at the relationship from the perspective of worry, anxiety or negative nature experiences,” Aulake says.

The researchers presented a Canadian research article, (Piccinnini et al. 2018), based on a nationally representative sample of children and adolescents aged 11–15. The study found that children who considered the relationship with nature as important experienced less depression, irritability, nervousness and problems falling asleep than others. Playing outside had a connection with a reduction in strong symptoms in girls; however, the connection was not statistically significant amongst boys.

The reason for the differences between girls’ and boys’ reactions and different perceptions of anxiety are one of those potential topics that require further study. Additional new topics relate to the importance of media and virtual nature experiences for the relationship with nature and wellbeing of children and young people.

Children know how to act and tell

In the qualitative study, there was more variation than in the quantitative one, in terms of what role nature plays for children. In the interviews conducted in the studies, the children named various activities that can be done in nature, such as play, fish and swim. Interviews also highlighted a connection to nature and a revival process that can be experienced when being surrounded by nature. Children are able to tell what makes them happy when spending time in nature.

“It is essential that children themselves are able to actively seek wellbeing in nature. The fact that nature is accessible to all must be considered in all decision making and planning processes”, says Arola.

It is the duty of adults to provide an opportunity for children to build their own relationship with nature and the opportunity to act and be active in nature. It implies inclusion and the possibility to influence things, for example, during construction of environments or planning of activities in nature.

The purpose of SYKE’s group is to continue research and also provide material for practical applications.

“SYKE aims to produce research that is socially relevant and also rapidly applicable. For example, I am interested in how we could strengthen children’s relationship in nurseries in their everyday life. This everyday exposure to nature creates a foundation for health and wellbeing, but, of course, nature school activities are also needed. It is also important to consider how children and young people can plan the courtyards of their own nurseries and schools together with professionals. This co-operation has the ability to create surrounding environments that reflect the children’s personalities, environments in which they feel comfortable and that support their wellbeing”, Paloniemi says.

The ideas for the mapping were supported by other speakers at the seminar; children and adolescents spoke about their relationship with nature and researchers and policymakers addressed the topic from different angles. Amongst other things the speakers highlighted issues regarding resources such as the possibility to hold nature clubs and to acquire adequate equipment for spending time in nature.

Interactivity with nature was one of the most important topics discussed.

“Interestingly, the bipolarity of our relationship to nature was also discussed, meaning what we can give to nature in return for spending time there”, says Arola.

“When nature promotes human health, man should also contribute to the health of nature”, Aulake supplements.


Text by Ina Ruokolainen


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