Spending time among trees helps children grow (and cuts their risk of emotional problems)

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Watch: Woodland areas 'are good for young people's mental health'

Children who grow up around trees and woodland have better cognitive development and lower risks of emotional problems, a new study has found. 

Researchers at UCL and Imperial College London analysed data on 3,568 children and teenagers, aged nine to 15 years, from 31 schools across London. 

The study, published in Nature Sustainability, looked at the links between different types of natural urban environments and the pupils' cognitive development, mental health and overall well-being.

Researchers used satellite data to help calculate each adolescent's daily exposure rate to woodlands, meadows and parkland within 50m, 100m, 250m and 500m of their home and school.

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The results showed that higher daily exposure to woodland (but not grassland) was associated with higher scores for cognitive development, and a 16% lower risk of emotional and behavioural problems two years later.

Young girl holding arms around tree in Danish forest at a forest kindergarten.
Trees help children to develop, it seems. (Getty)

Lead author and PhD student Mikaël Maes said: "Previous studies have revealed positive associations between exposure to nature in urban environments, cognitive development and mental health. Why these health benefits are received remains unclear, especially in adolescents.

"These findings contribute to our understanding of natural environment types as an important protective factor for an adolescent's cognitive development and mental health and suggest that not every environment type may contribute equally to these health benefits.

"Forest bathing, for example (being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of a forest), is a relaxation therapy that has been associated with physiological benefits, supporting the human immune function, reducing heart rate variability and salivary cortisol, and various psychological benefits. 

“However, the reasons why we experience these psychological benefits from woodland remain unknown."

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It is already estimated that one in 10 of London's children and adolescents between the ages of five and 16 suffer from a clinical mental health illness and excess costs are estimated between £11,030 and £59,130 annually for each person. 

As with adults, there is also evidence that natural environments play an important role in children and adolescents' cognitive development and mental health into adulthood, but less is known about why this is.

Joint senior author Professor Mireille Toledano said: "It's been suggested previously that the benefits of natural environments to mental health are comparable in magnitude to family history, parental age and even more significant than factors like the degree of urbanisation around you, but lower than your parents' socioeconomic status. 

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Toledano said: “Sensory and non-sensory pathways have been suggested as potentially important for delivering cognition and mental health benefits received from exposure to nature.

"It's critical for us to tease out why natural environments are so important to our mental health throughout the life course – does the benefit derive from the physical exercise we do in these environments, from the social interactions we often have in them, or from the fauna and flora we get to enjoy in these environments or a combination of all of these?"

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