University of Hong Kong researchers say they now have proof that children with a greater connection to nature are psychologically healthier.
The researchers say they were able to show this – for the first time – by developing a tool to measure how connected pre-schoolers feel to their natural surroundings.
Dr Tanja Sobko, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Hong Kong, said there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that a greater disconnect from nature – as a result of living in the city – is leading to unhealthier lifestyles.
A 2017 study, for example, showed that 16 percent of preschoolers in Hong Kong, and up to 22 percent on the mainland, showed signs of mental health problems.
"Coming from Sweden, for me it was very natural for children to spend time outdoors – in scientific terms, we call that 'outdoor play' – and when I came to Hong Kong, I noticed that children and families would avoid being outside."
Dr Sobko runs a programme called 'Play and Grow' that aims to promote healthy eating and play among children by connecting them with nature.
From what she's seen, children might be learning from their parents or grandparents that nature is dirty or bad, so they develop a fear.
“I see a big difference here in Hong Kong and Sweden, where children are fascinated about bugs and ants ... they would study them and follow them ... and here, they would be afraid of that.”
Sobko said it was very difficult to measure how connected children feel to nature, and what that means because no tools existed.
HKU researchers created their own 16-point checklist and that helped measure children's psychological well-being and behavioural problems.
"We could see that, for example, enjoyment of nature, responsibility towards nature and awareness of nature were very much correlated to certain items in the questionnaire – such as emotional symptoms, hyperactivity problems, and social behaviour," Sobko said.
She said their tool can be used to identify problems early and measure if and how programmes to help children connect with nature actually work.
Parents and schools can also start to see the link between a healthy lifestyle and being closer to nature, she said.