Hilary Long: Why children need 'green prescriptions' for good mental health

Hilary Long, co-ordinator of the Upstart Glasgow Network and CommonSpace columnist, says that prioritising connecting children to nature will have multiple positive impacts, not least on their mental health

RECENTLY I had the opportunity of hearing Richard Louv speak in Edinburgh at a Play Scotland event. Richard is an American author and journalist best known for his book “Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder” which investigates the relationship between children and the natural world in current and historical contexts.

It was inspiring to hear him talk about the benefits of a strong nature connection and the restorative powers of nature in relation to promoting mental and physical health and wellbeing and in building smarter and more sustainable businesses, communities, and economies, as well as strengthening human bonds.

Last week was World Mental Health Day and the statistics for children and young people’s mental health are alarming. One in 10 of all 5–16 year olds have a clinically diagnosable mental illness, according to Audit Scotland). The World Economic Forum say that half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14. That translates into three children in every classroom.

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Mental illness can strike anyone at any time in their life. However, if you are living in poverty you are three times more likely to suffer mental health problems. One in five children live in relative poverty in Scotland so it’s no wonder we have a 22 per cent increase in referrals to CAMHS since 2013/14 and, due to lack of resources, a 24 per cent increase in the number of referrals rejected. According to The Varley Foundation young people in the UK suffer from some of the “lowest levels of mental wellbeing in the world”, second to Japan. Amongst 15-29 year olds depression is the third leading cause of illness, whilst suicide is the second leading cause of death. Harmful use of alcohol, drugs and eating disorders are also cause for concern.

The World Health Organisation says there is growing recognition of the importance of helping children develop mental resilience at an early age to build life skills that help them cope with everyday challenges at home and school. Conventional wisdom also suggests that spending too much time online is detrimental to the human brain and impacts negatively on mental health and stress levels.

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Louv referred to this in his talk. He advocated that children need less time at desks and more time outside. He provides many examples in his work of how nature engages and soothes children and young people. Interestingly GP’s in Shetland have started to write “green prescriptions” to encourage people with depression and anxiety to spend more time outdoors walking in nature and practising “Japanese Forest Bathing”.

Louv also states that unless children engage with nature they will have no interest in protecting it. Very important at a time when we need the younger generation to address global problems of pollution and climate change. There are lots of reasons parents keep their children indoors – or kids keep themselves inside – in particular: screens, school work, the weather, traffic and fear they will get hurt. Whilst mental health is a complex area there seems no dispute about the benefits of unplugging and de-stressing by stepping outside.

READ MORE – Child's play: Are our kids being left unfulfilled because of our attitudes?

Research has shown that even a brief walk in the woods can lower anxiety and stress and help with developmental disorders such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). The American Society of Pediatricians supports “prescriptions for play” particularly outdoors for healthy holistic child development. Moreover, being outside in nature engages children better in their learning and they make significant gains in language, maths, social studies and the arts. Outdoors develops children’s social skills such as negotiating, leading and being part of a team. They learn to assess and manage risk.

Louv emphasises the importance of playing outdoors in nature and its contribution to children developing empathy and the ability to self-regulate their emotions. All very important in relation to good mental health.  Learning outdoors levels the playing field, is cooperative rather than competitive and has been shown to close the attainment and gender gaps.

Health and wellbeing is at the heart of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence so perhaps instead of piling on the pressure with standardised testing in Primary 1 we should be quitting the classroom and getting our kids outdoors playing and exploring the wonders of nature. It will improve their physical and mental health, as well as their scores.

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