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The role of public and private natural space in children's social, emotional, and behavioural development in Scotland: A longitudinal study

Summary


Neighborhood natural space may reduce social, emotional and behavioral difficulties for 4–6 year olds, but private garden access may be the most beneficial

This study investigated whether neighborhood natural space and private garden access were related to children’s social, emotional, and behavioral development over time. The study also explored differences by gender and socioeconomic status in how these groups use and are affected by neighborhood natural space and private garden access.

Data on nearly 3000 children living in urban Scotland were accessed from the Growing Up in Scotland survey. The data included responses to the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) completed by the parents when their children were 4 years of age and again at age 6. The SDQ addresses five domains of child development: Hyperactivity Problems, Emotional Problems, Peer Problems, Conduct Problems, and Prosocial Behavior. Parents also provided information about their children’s access to a private garden or yard. Additional data about children’s access to natural space (including public parks) was based on information gathered from Scotland’s Greenspace Map.

Children in urban Scotland had unequal access to both public and private natural space. Though not true for park access, garden access was significantly more common for children from the least deprived neighborhoods and the most educated households. Children from the least deprived neighborhoods also had significantly more total natural space than those from the most deprived neighborhoods. Certain groups of children with more park or total natural space around their homes had slightly better social, emotional and behavioral outcomes compared to those with less total natural space. Children with access to a garden/yard, however, experienced sizeable mental health benefits, especially in the area of Hyperactivity. Children from low-education households without access to a garden had significantly higher levels of Hyperactivity, Conduct Problems, and Total Difficulties than children from high education households without garden access. While private garden access was related to some improved outcomes for all participants, public parks were only related to improved mental health outcomes for boys. Additionally, boys without garden access had more difficulties in the areas of Peer Problems, Conduct Problems, and Total Difficulties than boys with garden access. Public parks were also associated with positive Prosocial Behavior outcomes; private gardens were not. Change over time in the children’s developmental outcomes was not related to public or private natural space, indicating that any beneficial influence of the natural space had already occurred by age 4. In contrast to some other research, this study found no evidence that the beneficial relationships between natural space and developmental outcomes were stronger for lower socioeconomic status children than other children.

This research suggests that while neighborhood natural space may have some modest developmental outcomes for children, private natural spaces may have the most beneficial outcomes for this age group. Public spaces, however, have an important role in promoting socially-beneficial interactions. While a high proportion of children in urban Scotland have access to a private garden, this is not the case in all countries. The potential implications for childhood development should be considered. Ensuring that children have nearby access to nature in public and private spaces could help improve children’s development and make an important contribution to public health.

Citation

Richardson, E.A., Pearce, J., Shortt, N.K., Mitchell, R., (2017). The role of public and private natural space in children's social, emotional, and behavioural development in Scotland: A longitudinal study. Environmental Research, 158, 729-736.

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