Blue spaces bring better mental health, and that starts with childhood play, study finds
The Sector > Research > Blue spaces bring better mental health, and that starts with childhood play, study finds

Blue spaces bring better mental health, and that starts with childhood play, study finds

by Freya Lucas

October 13, 2022

Adults with good mental health are more likely to have spent time playing in and around coastal and inland waters, such as rivers and lakes, new research shows.


Collectively known as “blue spaces”, growing up around water is the latest marker that time in nature is associated with stress reduction and better mental health, with the research and associated data showing the benefit of blue spaces being replicated across all 18 countries involved in the study. 


The research has demonstrated the benefits of blue spaces and the role childhood contact has in these relationships in later life. Data came from 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 current analysis used data from over 15,000 people across 14 European Countries and four other non-European countries/regions (Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and California).


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/guardians were with them playing in these settings, as well as more recent contact with green and blue spaces over the last four weeks, and mental health over the last two weeks.


Individuals who recalled more childhood blue space experiences tended to place greater intrinsic value on natural settings in general, and to visit them more often as adults — each of which, in turn, were associated with better mental wellbeing in adulthood.


 “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,” explained lead author Valeria Vitale. 


“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,” she added. 


Co-author Dr Leanne Martin said that many parents, quite rightly, perceive water settings as dangerous, but that supporting children to feel comfortable in these settings and developing skills such as swimming at an early age can have previously unrecognised life-long benefits.


“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,” added fellow author Dr Mathew White. 


Mechanisms underlying childhood exposure to blue spaces and adult subjective well-being: An 18-country analysis‘ was recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology

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