Landscapes of becoming social: A systematic review of evidence for associations and pathways between interactions with nature and socioemotional development in children

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Background: Existing research indicates that spending time in nature is associated with diverse aspects of children's health and wellbeing. Although fundamental to later life chances and health, no systematic reviews, to our knowledge, have focused specifically on the effects of interaction with nature on socioemotional functioning in childhood. 

Objectives: Amongst children, what is the consistency of associations between the availability of or spending time in nature on socioemotional function and development? Furthermore, which child behaviours and states independently associate with socioemotional function and availability of or spending time in nature, and what is the consistency of associations between these behaviours and states and contact with nature? 

Data sources: Embase, Environment Complete, MEDLINE, and APA PsycINFO. Eligible studies were backward and forward snowball-searched. 

Study eligibility criteria: Studies investigating effects of, or associations between, availability of or interaction with nature on socioemotional or proximal outcomes in children under the age of 12 years were included in this review. 

Study appraisal and synthesis methods: The internal validity of studies investigating socioemotional outcomes were based on assessments of elements of study design, conduct, and reporting to identify potential issues related to confounding or other biases. The number of analyses indicating positive, negative, and non-significant associations between availability or interaction with green space and the outcomes were summed. 

Results: A total of 223 eligible full-texts, of which 43 pertained to socioemotional outcomes and 180 to proximal outcomes, met eligibility criteria. Positive associations between availability of and spending time in green space were found with children's intra- and interpersonal socioemotional function and development. Proportions of positive findings ranged from 13.9% to 55% across experimental and observational research, exposures, populations, and contexts. Modifying and mediating factors were identified. We found consistent evidence for improved aspects of cognition and, for children over six years, reduced risk of obesity and overweight in association with green space; consistent links between movement behaviours in the experimental, but not observational research; tentative trends suggesting associations with play, motor skills, language, screen time, and communication skills; little evidence for positive associations between green space and mood, physical wellbeing, and stress; some evidence for associations with healthy birth outcomes, and little evidence for direct associations between availability of green space and asthma and allergy prevalence, however, mediation via, for example, air pollution was likely. 

Limitations: We identified few studies without either probable or severe risk of bias in at least one item. Improved study quality may therefore result in different results. Restricting analyses to include only studies considered at low risk of bias indicated similar or slightly lower proportions of positive findings. Risk of bias in proximal outcomes was not assessed. 

Conclusions: The empirical evidence for benefits of availability of and interaction green space for child socioemotional function and development must currently be considered limited. A number of proximal indicators were identified. Systematic review registration number. PROSPERO ID: CRD42019135016.

Original languageEnglish
Article number106238
JournalEnvironment International
Volume146
Number of pages27
ISSN0160-4120
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2021

    Research areas

  • Child development, Environmental enrichment, Green space, Mechanistic model, Natural environment

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