It’s a glorious autumn day at Wakehurst in West Sussex. The long, hot summer has given way to a late blaze of green. The leaves are turning. Crows chatter in the treetops. Fungi peep out from moss and woodchips. Meanwhile, Professor Dawn Watling has wired me up to a fitness tracker and is walking me down to the wetland.
Watling supervises psychology PhDs at Royal Holloway University. She’s an expert on children’s mental health. Watling and Wakehurst head of public programmes Lorraine Lecourtois are leading a team from RBG Kew to work out which landscapes do most for our health and wellbeing.
Wakehurst markets itself as Kew’s wilder sister. Its sprawling 525 acres enclose a wetland, grassy meadows, native woodlands, exotic woodlands and ornamental gardens. Using data from the trackers, the researchers will work out which landscapes and habitats – woods, meadows or wetlands – most improve our health and wellbeing.
Researchers signed up 300 adult visitors and more than 1,000 children aged seven to 13, invited from 36 local schools. Volunteers answered questions about their health and wellbeing before and after walking around Wakehurst, taking a ten-minute break midway to quietly note their surroundings.
Nature Unlocked is a ground-breaking study. It looks at how and where we benefit most from being out in nature. Part of the Landscape Ecology Programme that RGB Kew launched in 2021, it has gathered hard data to explain how being in nature benefits children in particular.
The heart-rate variability monitors tracked volunteers’ pulse rates and mapped which route they took. The children drew pictures before and after their walkabout, showing a favourite memory from the visit, choosing a colour to express their current mood.
The researchers have analysed who spent time where and compared people’s ratings before and after. The study aims to prove which habitat – wood, meadow or waterbody – has the most positive impact on mood.
Knowing this will help experts to plan local green spaces, decide what trees to plant where, even to ditch prescription drugs to spend more time out in nature. Knowing how and where nature has most power will help us to make the most of our time outdoors. Schools can redesign outdoor spaces. GPs can better advise their patients.
During lockdown, more of us came to value our local green spaces. It became obvious then, that being outside boosted our mood and eased feelings of stress and anxiety. Lockdown pushed many of us, often for the first time, to make the effort to get outside for an hour out every day.
Two years on, we’re back to our old, bad habits; slaves to screen time, wrestling a mounting work/life imbalance, struggling with pressures on incomes and time.
What may be less evident is how our children are struggling now. Technology, urban growth and safety concerns have transformed the lives of children in developed economies over the last century.
The lifestyles of children today have transformed since their parents and grandparents were young. They spend more time indoors, explore nature less, walk less. Previous generations might walk, cycle or catch buses from school to social event to sleepover. Today children rely ever more on lifts from friends or family.
US researchers, looking at how long children spend watching television, gaming and texting, found that the average American child spends four to seven minutes in unstructured play outdoors and more than seven hours a day hunched over a screen.
“National panic about kids spending too much time indoors has become so extreme,” wrote researcher Danielle Cohen, “that the crisis has a name: nature-deficit disorder.”
Access to nature is unequal, too. A 2020 Natural England survey found that nearly three-quarters of children from minoritised backgrounds spent less time outdoors post-lockdown, compared to 57 per cent of white children. The lower the family income, the less time the child spends outdoors.
A 2016 study found that the average British child spend less time outdoors than most prison inmates. One in five spent the average day indoors and didn’t play outside at all.
“Children’s lives are so different now,” Watling says. “You could call it an extinction of experiences.”
One child in five faces some kind of mental-health challenge, Watling says. Preventing this is better than curing it. Nature is not just the remedy, she says. If we can work out how to harness it, we can cut the number of children who are struggling.
Wakehurst researchers had each group of children spend ten minutes of quiet time, taking in their surroundings. They tried not to direct the children how to focus. That gave the children permission to be in the moment, Watling says. To feel the air on their skin, notice a tiny insect, smell the dryness of the earth or hear the bullrushes whooshing in the wind.
The children came from local schools with higher than average take-up of free school meals. Wakehurst gave every child who took part a voucher to return with an adult. Adults pay £14.95 to visit the gardens; £7.50 aged 17-25. In this way, the study “opened an outreach opportunity” to include more local families, says Wakehurst learning manager Julie Whelan.
“We must continue and increase our dialogue with these schools. This has been an eye-opener. We’ve seen how the children’s shoulders start to drop as they walk, how – by having fun – they get to learn without realising it.”
The research team was still crunching the data at time of going to press. What do the early findings suggest?
“They will make us think about how we engage with nature,” Watling says. “About how much time we spend outdoors and the benefits this offers. It can’t just be about reaching other academics through our journals. We need to share this knowledge widely.
“Beyond that, it’s about spelling out the importance of nature – about why we need to protect it. That takes us into policy and environmental planning. It’s about how we plan our gardens and our parks and everything else to make a future that’s sustainable. It creates a virtuous circle.”
The big picture is this, says Wakehurst director Ed Ikin: “Biodiverse landscapes benefit all of us; cleaner air and water, sustainable food and carbon storage. They can also make us happy, satisfying our need for visual stimulation, colour and shelter.
“This research aims to demonstrate why biodiversity matters, providing evidence and inspiration to make better decisions and encouraging more people to care for nature.”
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