Power of blue spaces: Growing up near shorelines linked to better adult wellbeing

EXETER, United Kingdom — Summer days by the beach or evenings at the lake as a child promote better wellbeing decades later, according to fascinating new research. Across 18 different countries, researchers found that adults with better mental health were more likely to have spent time playing in and around coastal and inland waters as children.

Collectively, coastal beaches and inland bodies of water like rivers and lakes are referred to as blue spaces. This study suggests the more time spent around blue spaces as a child the better.

There is already plenty of evidence that spending time in green spaces (parks, forests, etc) as an adult is associated with better mental health and less stress. However, far lass has been established regarding the impact of blue spaces, especially when encountered early in life.

“In the context of an increasingly technological and industrialized world, it’s important to understand how childhood nature experiences relate to wellbeing in later life,” says Valeria Vitale, lead study author and PhD Candidate at Sapienza University of Rome, in a statement. “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.”

‘Life-long benefits’ from being around blue spaces

Data analyzed for this project was provided by the BlueHealth International Survey (BIS), a cross-sectional survey co-ordinated by the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health. The dataset encompassed over 15,000 people living in 14 European countries and four additional non-European countries/regions (Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and California).

Each study subject was asked to remember their childhood experiences with blue spaces (between ages 0-16). More specifically, how local such areas were, how often they were visited, and how comfortable parents/guardians were with them playing in these settings. The surveys also asked about more recent experiences with both green and blue spaces over the prior month, as well as mental health over the last two weeks.

All in all, the study found those who remembered more time spent around blue spaces as a child generally placed greater intrinsic value on natural settings, which led to more trips to such areas an an adult, ultimately resulting in better mental wellbeing in adulthood.

“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 un-recognised life-long benefits,” adds study co-author Dr. Leanne Martin, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health.

“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,” explains Dr Mathew White, study co-author and Senior Scientist at the University of Vienna.

“If our findings are supported by longitudinal research that tracks people’s exposures over the entire life-course, 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 study is published in Journal of Environmental Psychology.

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