Living Near Water as a Child is Linked to Better Mental Health and Well-being in Adulthood: Study

Using research from 18 countries, a new study concludes that adults with better mental health are more likely to report having spent time playing in and around coastal and inland waters, such as rivers and lakes as children.

The findings were replicated in each of the 18 countries, say the authors studying ‘blue spaces’.

Mounting evidence shows that spending time in and around green spaces such as parks and woodlands in adulthood is associated with stress reduction and better mental health. However, we know far less about the benefits of blue spaces, or the role childhood contact with these waters has in later life.

The team used data from over 15,000 people across 14 European Countries and 4 other non-European regions (Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and California)—all gathered from the BlueHealth International Survey, a cross-sectional survey co-ordinated by the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health.

Respondents were asked to recall their blue space experiences between the ages of 0-16 years including how local they were, how often they visited them, and how comfortable their parents/guardians were with them playing in these settings, as well as more recent contact with green and blue spaces over the last four weeks, and mental health over the last two weeks.

The research found that individuals who recalled more experiences in childhood around blue spaces tended to place greater intrinsic value on natural settings in general, and to visit them more often as adults—each of which, in turn, were associated with better mental wellbeing in adulthood.

“In the context of an increasingly technological and industrialized world, it’s important to understand how childhood nature experiences relate to wellbeing in later life,” said Valeria Vitale, Lead author and PhD Candidate at Sapienza University of Rome, lead author of the paper published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, and funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program.

“Our findings suggest that building familiarity and confidence in and around blue spaces during childhood may stimulate an inherent joy of nature and encourage people to seek out recreational nature experiences, with beneficial consequences for adult mental health,”

Dr Leanne Martin, Co-author and Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Exeter acknowledges that water settings can be dangerous for children, and “parents are right to be cautious”.

“This research suggests, though, that supporting children to feel comfortable in these settings and developing skills such as swimming at an early age can have previously unrecognized life-long benefits.”

“The current study is adding to our growing awareness of the need for urban planners and local bodies responsible for managing our green and blue spaces to provide safe, accessible access to natural settings for the healthy mental and physical development of our children,” said Dr Mathew White, Co-author and Senior Scientist at the University of Vienna.