‘Green Acres’ really is the place to be if you want mentally healthier kids

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It turns out the 1960s hit TV show “Green Acres” had it spot on when it came to its catchy theme song. New research suggests young children who grow up in areas lush with green spaces have stronger mental health. The study reports that kids who lived in areas featuring natural areas (forests, parks, even backyards) from birth may deal with fewer emotional issues between the ages of two and five.

The project was funded by the NIH Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program. Findings are published in JAMA Network Open.

In an effort to collect more data focusing specifically on the relationship between mental health in young children and time spent in nature, ECHO investigators analyzed information gathered from parents regarding the behavior of their children from ages two to 11. From there, researchers compared that data with each family’s residential address when the child was born in conjunction with satellite data pertaining to live vegetation density around their homes.

This analysis led to the finding that higher levels of green spaces up to three-fourths of a mile from a child’s home showed a link with lower anxiety and depression symptoms from ages two to five years old. That association remained even after study authors accounted for each child’s sex, parent education, age at birth, and neighborhood socioeconomic vulnerability. Notably, no significant association appeared connecting green space around the home and mental health symptoms in later childhood years from ages six to 11; a time when adolescents typically spend more time at school.

“Our research supports existing evidence that being in nature is good for kids,” says Nissa Towe-Goodman, PhD, an ECHO researcher from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC, in a media release. “It also suggests that the early childhood years are a crucial time for exposure to green spaces.”

The majority of prior relevant research thus far had only focused on one or a few cities at a time, and usually studied adult health specifically. Since the ECHO Program collects data on a nationwide scale, study authors could examine data from children covering 199 counties across 41 U.S. states. This allowed them to investigate the connection between exposure to green spaces from birth and anxiety, depression, aggression, and other symptoms come early or middle childhood.

This project encompassed kids born between 2007 and 2013, whose parents completed the Child Behavior Checklist, a common survey for rating a child’s emotional and behavioral symptoms. All 2,103 children included in the study ranged in age from two to 11 years old.

Green space exposure, meanwhile, underwent measurement via the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a widely used metric for quantifying vegetation density using sensor data. NDVI values range from -1 to 1. High NDVI values (roughly 0.6 to 0.9) represent dense vegetation, like forests, while values close to zero represent areas lacking live vegetation.

“In the future, researchers could look into what kinds of experiences in nature are connected to kids’ early mental health,” Dr. Towe-Goodman concludes. “Also, we should study how creating or preserving natural areas around homes and schools might make a difference in a child’s mental health.”

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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  1. How many social scientists does it it take to find out what grandmother knew?

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