Updated: Apr 6
Nature has inspired more poetry, more music, and enabled more daydreams than any other environment. Being surrounded by beautiful, living things in an ever-changing landscape touches a deep, primordial need in humans.
This isn’t just a few nice ideas. Science has backed up the positive impact green spaces have on humans, young and old. Health benefits, both physical and mental, abound.
In particular, children benefit from time spent in green spaces. Even more specifically, children with neurological disabilities, like ADHD, Autism, learning disabilities, and Sensory Processing Disorder, can reap benefits from the great outdoors.
So, what are the benefits of green spaces for children? What are the particular benefits to those with neurological disabilities? And what are the drawbacks?
THE BENEFITS OF GREEN SPACES ON CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT
It’s easy to imagine green spaces - parks, playgrounds, and the like - as being good for kids. Fresh air, exercise, and the learning experiences of interacting with nature are prevalent in these environments. As it turns out, green spaces are even more beneficial than that.
Studies have shown that green spaces can provide a multitude of health benefits for children, and may even be directly related to a lower risk of psychiatric disorders, with children who grew up with little access to parks and the like having a 55% higher risk of psychiatric disorders.
Additionally, green spaces may promote prosocial behavior in children. Prosocial behaviors contribute to better grades, problem-solving, and lower aggression. While there is limited research on the correlation between the two, there is some evidence that supports the idea that more access to green space leads to better social behaviors.
THE BENEFITS - AND CAUTIONS - OF CHILDREN WITH NEUROLOGICAL DISABILITIES IN GREEN SPACES
Of course, the bulk of that research has been conducted on children without neurological disabilities like Sensory Processing Disorder, learning disabilities, Autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, and the like. And parents of children with these disabilities have very real concerns about taking their children to playgrounds, parks, trails, and so on. So, is it worth it?
It turns out that there are sizable benefits for children with neurological disabilities in having access to green spaces, as well, and across the disability spectrum.
In one study, researchers found those who regularly play in outdoor settings with lots of green space (outdoor space) have milder ADHD symptoms than those who play indoors.
Parents with children experiencing neurological disabilities are more likely to be interested in the positive impacts these environments can have on their own child. Here, too, there is plenty of evidence to support taking your kids out to play.
Children with ADHD were found to have decreased symptoms if they regularly play in green spaces, and their effects can last an hour or more after play. For those with spectrum disorders, benefits to the children included sensorimotor, emotional, and social. Gross and fine motor skills are improved when kids are able to play with loose natural elements, like sand, leaves, and twigs.
Green spaces present a double-edged sword for some children. Because green spaces attract other children, there is a greater opportunity for expanding social skills, but also a higher likelihood of an issue in social interactions. Also, parents of children with neurological disabilities need to choose their green space carefully. Few are designed with children with sensory and motor issues and may present intense sensory stimuli as well as great physical challenges. There may also be few places for parents to retreat to when their children become upset, overwhelmed, overexcited, or simply need time to process what’s going on around them. Physical safety can also be a concern and should be taken into account. Parents need to educate themselves and rely on their team to supply valuable resources.
Yet many parents of children with neurological disabilities report that when in a green space, their child is more relaxed, happier, and energetic than normal. This, too, aligns with research on the relaxing qualities of green spaces. If, as a parent, you can’t find safe green spaces near you to visit regularly, even pictures of meadows, parks, and other nature scenes can enhance so many of the same wonderful benefits.
The moral of the story is that time in nature is good for us. All of us. But it has especially positive impacts on stress, mental health, and those with neurological disabilities. Parents should spend time finding spaces where their children can enjoy nature safely, and encourage their local city planners to commit time and resources to design areas with the needs of their children in mind.