Adults with better mental health are more likely to have spent time playing in and around coastal and inland waters, such as rivers and lakes as children, new research finds.
A large-scale study has found that individuals with more childhood blue space experiences tended to place greater value on natural settings in general, and to visit them more often as adults – which, in turn, is associated with better mental wellbeing in adulthood.
Coordinated by the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment & Human Health, the collaborative study surveyed nearly 19,000 people across 18 countries.
Respondents were asked to recall their blue space experiences between the ages of 0-16 years including how local they were, how often they visited them, and how comfortable their parents were with them playing in these settings, as well as more recent contact with green and blue spaces and mental health over the last two weeks.
"Building confidence in blue spaces during childhood may stimulate an inherent joy of nature and encourage people to seek out recreational nature experiences, with beneficial consequences for mental health.”
Valeria Vitale, lead author and PhD student at Sapienza University of Rome, said: “In the context of an increasingly technological and industrialised world, it’s important to understand how childhood nature experiences relate to wellbeing in later life.
“Our findings suggest that building familiarity and confidence in and around blue spaces during childhood may stimulate an inherent joy of nature and encourage people to seek out recreational nature experiences, with beneficial consequences for adult mental health.”
Leanne Martin, co-author and research associate at the University of Exeter, said, “Water settings can be dangerous for children, and parents are right to be cautious. This research suggests though that supporting children to feel comfortable in these settings and developing skills such as swimming at an early age can have previously unrecognised lifelong benefits.”
Mathew White co-author and senior scientist at the University of Vienna, said, “The current study is adding to our growing awareness of the need for urban planners and local bodies responsible for managing our green and blue spaces to provide safe, accessible access to natural settings for the healthy mental and physical development of our children.
“If our findings are supported by longitudinal research that tracks people’s exposures over the entire lifecourse, it would suggest that further work, policies and initiatives encouraging more blue space experiences during childhood may be a viable way to support the mental health of future generations.”
The research, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.