10th May, 2021

What is nature for? Children’s perspectives in Mental Health Awareness Week

In our ‘Eco-capabilities’ study, artists, teachers, and more than a hundred children have come together to collaboratively explore ‘natural’ and outdoors spaces through the arts. Throughout the course of eight weeks, children are being invited to reflect on what is important to them for living a good life through environmental sustainability, social justice and future economic wellbeing (what we term eco-capabilities).

The benefits of being in green spaces, such as positive impact on happiness, vitality, life satisfaction and stress relief, have been demonstrated through a rapidly growing body of research. Further, there is suggestive evidence that lack of contact with undomesticated outdoor spaces in childhood is a predictor for adult depression (e.g. Snell et al., 2016). But what do children think nature is for? The artists in our study are exploring this question with children from primary schools and here we highlight some of their responses.

Nature as a space for calmness and admiration

In relation to mental health awareness, the most striking observation was how children perceive nature as a safe space for relaxation and calmness. One of the children said that ‘nature makes people happy because when they see nature is calm and relaxing’, whereas some other children mentioned that nature is there to ‘see and smell the blossoms and the flowers’, ‘look at the blue sky and the nice views’, ‘see the water that makes nice sounds’, and ‘to help us stay calm’. Another child said that ‘nature is there so that you can admire everything’.

Nature as home for people and animals

Children also acknowledged that ‘nature’ is fundamental to their own existence. For example, they recognised that ‘we wouldn’t exist without nature’, ‘nature helps us live’ and ‘makes sure we all breathe, we couldn’t breathe without trees’. One child also said that ‘it is the home for us and for the animals’.

Nature for imagination and discovery

Lastly, children found that nature is there to allow them to be ‘adventurous’, ‘creative’ and ‘to become explorers’; acknowledging so the benefits of nature for imagination, creativity and discovery.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is Nature; indeed Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation suggests that ‘Nature is so central to our psychological and emotional health, that it’s almost impossible to realise good mental health for all without a greater connection to the natural world’ (2021). Even at the beginning of Eco-Capabilities, it is clear that nature supports children’s wellbeing in a variety of ways, and over the course of the eight weeks we will continue to explore how and why this might be the case with the children involved in our project. We anticipate that prolonged exposure to green spaces through the medium of artistic exploration will enable children to develop new perspectives as to what ‘nature’ might be for, and indeed what it is, and lead to a deeper sense of our own embeddedness within it.

Zoe Moula, Nicola Walshe and Elsa Lee