“It is about being outside”: Canadian youth’s perspectives of good health and the environment
Youth report feelings of calm and peace associated with spending time in healthy outdoor environments
The major purpose of this study was to bring youth’s voice, experiences and perceptions to bear in a discussion of the attributes of health. Research on youth and their perception of the relationship between health and the environment is limited. Most research examining the role of the environment on youth health has focused on physical health, rather than mental health, and most has not involved understanding youth’s perspective specifically.
The authors used qualitative ethnographic methods to gain a rich understanding of youth’s viewpoints. Study participants (n=71) were recruited from community clubs and organizations in a Western Canadian city, in a low-income urban environment. Care was taken to involve both males and females from diverse backgrounds. Data collection included two interviews with each participant. During the first one, researchers asked participants about their interpretation of health and contributing factors; youth were not specifically asked about the environment. Then the youth were given cameras to participate in a photo-voice activity; they were told to take photos of objects, people, and events that represent what health means to them and/or that influence their health. The youth discussed the photos they took during their second interview. Research assistants who interviewed these participants first spent a significant amount of time in the clubs and organizations from which youth were recruited in order to develop trust and gain a deeper understanding of their perspectives. Data from all activities were compiled and analyzed for themes. The study sample was 59% female and ages ranged from 12 to 19 years old. Fifty-four percent of participants were recruited from clubs and organizations in low-income areas.
The researchers identified and defined four themes that emerged related to the connection between health and the environment, including the built, natural, and human or social environment. The first theme referred to the participants’ connection between being healthy and being outside in a safe, green, clean, and livable space. In most cases, when youth talked about being in healthy environments, they were referring to outdoor environments fitting the above description. The second theme had to do with feelings (both positive and negative) that were conjured for youth by spending time in different environments. Youth felt uncomfortable and threatened when in unhealthy environments. In contrast, there were many positive emotions associated with being in healthy environments. Youth reported feelings of comfort, well-being, and psychological ease, encompassing relaxation and inner peace. This finding was not prompted by any specific research questions, and supports other research linking mental health benefits and nature contact. The third theme described how youth chose whether they wanted to engage in their environment or not, and that this choice was often dependent on how healthy and safe an environment was perceived to be. The fourth theme detailed the importance of people being present in their neighborhoods to protect youth and the environment. These adults often served as role models. Youth described the connections they felt to natural parts of their environment and the need for them to be protected into the future. They exhibited understanding of the connection between the environment and their mental and physical health. Notably, they most often felt that healthy environments were outdoors, not indoors.
This study adds qualitative evidence to the research base showing the connection between time spent in nature and positive mental health benefits, including feelings of calm and peace.
Woodgate, R. L., Skarlato, O., (2015). “It is about being outside”: Canadian youth’s perspectives of good health and the environment. Health & Place, 31,