A new study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology looked at the mechanisms underlying childhood exposure to blue spaces and adult subjective well-being.
“Our study is about the benefits of childhood contact with blue spaces, a collective name to indicate all the areas with waterbodies or watercourses, such as the sea, lakes and rivers,” study author Valeria Vitale told us. “We were hoping to find a positive link between the exposure to blue spaces during childhood and adult well-being and explore potential pathways that may explain this relationship.”
Researchers based their hypotheses on the growing body of research which suggests that spending time in nature as a child is associated with better well-being and a lower risk of poor mental health during both childhood and adulthood.
“Based on previous findings about the topic, we proposed and tested a potential mechanism behind the potential influence of childhood experiences with blue spaces on well-being in adulthood,” Vitale told us. “Specifically, we considered the role of adult motivations to visit natural spaces and the frequency of visits to blue and green spaces.”
Although prior findings have widely demonstrated that childhood exposure to natural environments lead to positive adult outcomes, most previous research about the topic has focused on green spaces or nature in general. The research team decided to focus on the specific role of childhood exposure to blue spaces which was an aspect still understudied.
“Indeed, even if blue- and green space experiences are frequently bound together and share many features and consequent benefits, blue spaces also have some unique sensory qualities, such as light reflections, wave motion and sounds, and facilitate a distinct range of leisure activities, such as swimming, fishing, water-sports,” Vitale told us. “However, blue spaces also pose a number of hazards and risks, particularly for children (e.g., drowning, infectious diseases, harmful algae blooms) which may increase parental concerns about children's contact with these environments.”
Researchers were interested in exploring whether the pattern of association between childhood nature exposure and adult positive outcomes, already demonstrated from previous studies, extends to blue spaces in particular.
They used data from over 15,000 people across 14 European countries and four other non-European countries/regions (Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and California), collected by the BlueHealth International Survey. Respondents were asked to recall their blue space experiences between the ages of 0-16 years including how accessible they were, how often they visited them, and how comfortable their parents/guardians were with them playing in these settings.
“Moreover, participants were asked to report their motivations to visit natural spaces, in terms of if they find spending time in nature as something enjoyable or fun and important and if they would feel disappointed in themselves spending all their time indoors,” Vitale told us. “Also, we collected information about their visits' frequency to green and blue spaces over the last four weeks, and their mental health over the last two weeks.”
Then, a range of analyses were carried out in order to investigate the hypotheses. In particular, the researcher’s proposed model about the mechanism behind childhood exposure to blue spaces and adult well-being was formally tested using structural equation modelling (SEM).
“Our results supported the hypothesis that a positive exposure to blue spaces during childhood predicts better well-being in adulthood,” Vitale told us. “This pattern of associations was largely consistent across all the countries/regions of our sample.”
Concerning the processes behind this association, supporting their conceptual model, the research team found evidence that childhood exposure to blue spaces was positively associated with adult motivations to visit natural spaces, which in turn predicted more recent visits to blue and green spaces, which themselves predicted better well-being in adulthood.
“We did expect that greater contact with blue spaces would have been linked to adult well-being, since previous studies already showed a similar association in regards with childhood nature exposure more generally,” Vitale told us. “Also, prior findings showed evidence supporting some of the patterns we included in our model. So, we were quite confident that results would sustain our hypotheses and our proposed model, but we were still glad to find out this was actually the case.”
Researchers were a bit more surprised about the results showing some consistency of their model across countries/regions. Indeed, prior evidence supports the idea that the way people relate to nature varies across cultures. Social and cultural backgrounds can also trigger different parental perceptions of risk and different educational approaches that may differentially affect children's exposure to blue spaces. The research team thought that such differences would have influenced the relationship between childhood exposure to blue spaces and adult outcomes.
“We think our research remarked on the potentially long-term impact of childhood blue space experiences in promoting well-being, as well as the potential protective value of this factor on adult mental health issues, internationally,” Vitale told us. “Due to the nationally representative nature of the samples, we believe our findings are particularly relevant to highlight the need for policies and initiatives encouraging greater contact with blue spaces during childhood, as well as the requirement to protect and invest in natural spaces in order to optimize their potential benefits and decrease parental concerns about children’s contact with these environments.”
Vitale explained that they are aware that people are becoming increasingly detached from the natural world, due to technological distractions and indoor lifestyles. This is particularly relevant for children that may lose the ability to understand and care for the natural world, and consequently benefit from it.
“We hope that studies like this may help to promote more awareness and knowledge about all the potential positive effects derived from nature contact,” Vitale told us, “and encourage people to give the right value to spend time in natural environments.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com