The Blue Gym for kids

This ESF funded PhD investigated the relationship between the natural environment and children’s health and wellbeing. It was conducted by Dr Rebecca Jenkin.

It concentrated on self-control: the ability people have to control their thoughts, feelings, impulses and behaviours; and positive affect: positive emotions and moods – such as feeling happy, attentive and interested.

The work was conducted in partnership with two local Cornish businesses, GB Boardriders and Exhale, who both carry out interventions that promote healthier lifestyles for specific groups of children in the natural environment.

The findings suggest that children living in urban environments should spend time away from these busy locations, and have access to natural areas such as parks and green space.

The project also found that interventions in natural environments were particularly beneficial for those suffering from health and wellbeing issues, as well as poor self-control or a lack of positive affect.

Three diverse research methods were used

To triangulate sources of data and minimise the biases and limitations of any given method, three diverse research methods were employed:

  • Applied fieldwork studies of targeted, community-based health and wellbeing interventions
  • Controlled experimental studies
  • Analyses of secondary data

These methods provided a more comprehensive and well-rounded picture of the overall pattern of effects we were investigating.

The fieldwork conducted with GB Boardriders and Exhale examined children’s subjective wellbeing, positive affect and self-control before, after, and while taking part, in the interventions. The results imply that natural environment interventions may promote positive affect and self-control; yet there was a lack of findings in relation to subjective wellbeing.

Baseline data was also obtained from one intervention, and used to map children’s health and wellbeing, including their BMI centile scores, hyperactivity and self-esteem, in relation to where they live in terms of greenspace and distance to coast. Although the study only had a small sample of participants, and specifically those suffering with obesity related health disorders, the findings suggested that where children lived may influence aspects of their health and wellbeing.

Boys who lived closer to the coast (between 0-2000m away) were significantly less hyperactive, and girls who lived closer to the coast had lower BMI centile scores and higher self-esteem, than those living further away (over 2000m) from the coast.

Additionally, three experimental studies – carried out in primary schools – explored the effect of exposure to natural and urban environments on children’s self-control, attention and mood. Exposure was through the use of videos of the environments, or the environments in situ.

Overall differences were found in children’s post-test self-control scores after exposure to either an urban or natural environment, with results suggesting that this was due to the urban environment having a depleting effect. Positive affect after exposure to a natural environment only increased in one study. The studies also found no support that natural environments restore attention.