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Rebecca Pow is MP for Taunton Deane. This article is an abridged version of an essay which will appear in BrightBlue‘s forthcoming essay collection, ‘Conservation Nation’.

Across the board, young people are reporting worrying rates of loneliness, self-loathing and feeling unloved, with ten per cent of five- to 16-year-olds being clinically diagnosed with a mental health disorder. It is particularly prevalent amongst girls. In addition to these mental health struggles, recent findings by Cancer Research UK show millennials will be the most obese generation on record by the time they reach middle age, leaving them exposed to an array of health issues.

All this coincides with young people becoming increasingly detached from nature. I have a strong sense that, whilst there are complex reasons for the health issues that afflict many young people, their disassociation with the natural world is linked to this, and a closer engagement with nature could help to turn the tide. Nature has always been important to me. From growing up on a family farm to walking in wild places, gardening at home, feeding the birds, or getting involved with a raft of environmental organisations from the Somerset Wildlife Trust (of which I am the proud Vice President), to the Woodland Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, or the Sustainable Soils Alliance, which I have launched since being in Westminster.

Figures show that British teenagers spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen, an increase of 40 per cent in a decade. Simultaneously, in a single generation, the area in which children roam from their home unsupervised has shrunk by 90 per cent. Consequently, less than a quarter of children regularly use their local ‘patch of nature’, and only one in ten children regularly play in wild spaces, down from five in ten half a generation ago.

Sadly, being ‘grounded’ in your bedroom is no longer a punishment for many young people. Rather it provides an escape into a virtual world of video games, social media, and the expanses of the internet. Too often, children opt for this seemingly ‘safe’ online space, shunning the outdoor world of activity, exploration, and adventure. This is not about swapping an adventure in nature for a laptop; it is about a balance of both. Get that balance right and the impact on a young person’s health and wellbeing will be positive.

The lack of a brush with nature could be affecting children’s mental health, and the lack of outdoor exercise harms their physical health. Using social media for two hours a day doubles the risk of experiencing social isolation. This further highlights why getting kids outside is so important, and why some of the Government’s additional £1.4 billion allocated to transform mental health services for young people between 2015 and 2020 ought to be directed towards programmes linked to the healing power of nature.

The force of nature can also penetrate the classroom to positive effect. Putting plants in a classroom can improve children’s performance in spelling, maths, and science by up to 14 per cent. Harnessing some of nature’s force through a range of policies across departments could make a real difference to health outcomes for children. The Nature Friendly Schools Programme is one example, and I am pleased to see a reference to it in the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan, with £10 million allocated to improve school grounds, especially in disadvantaged areas.

The programme also advocates school trips to beautiful green places, where pupils will learn about their environment first-hand. This is a good start, but more is needed. The Woodland Trust would like all local authorities to adopt their access standard so that no person should live more than 500 metres from an area of accessible woodland, of no less than two hectares in size, and no less than four kilometres from a 20-hectare wood.

Investment in green tourism can help to unlock wider access to our green spaces. The National Forest offers enjoyment, learning, quiet relaxation, active leisure, and sustainable livelihoods, and its new Tourism Growth Plan aims to increase visitor spending by 15 per cent, and create 700 new jobs. This model has growing potential as our land use policy changes after leaving the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. In future there is likely to be an emphasis on paying land owners and farmers to deliver public goods, which opens up the opportunity for such things as the provision of public outdoor recreational spaces qualifying for payments.

Nature provides free health benefits, which must be harnessed. Enabling more General Practitioners to offer ‘green prescriptions’ (a brisk walk, or a spot of gardening) to address certain conditions should be encouraged. These natural prescriptions are being widely used in New Zealand, with eight out of ten GPs issuing them, and 72 per cent of patients noticing a positive change in their health. Incorporating plants and trees into developments as a priority can have a really positive effect on wellbeing. One study found that hospital patients recovered from illness and surgery more quickly when they had a green view from their windows, which inspired the ‘NHS National Forest’ project.

Waterways, especially those that snake through urban areas, offer valuable health benefits too. According to the Canal and River Trust, 90 per cent of visitors agree that waterways are good places to relax and relieve stress. Given that 61 per cent of households in close proximity to a waterway are classified as deprived, there is great potential here to invest in these ‘blue spaces’ to make more of the natural payback they offer, especially in deprived urban settings.

As a former gardening broadcaster, I can vouch for the benefits that can be garnered from this humble activity – especially for children. It is never too early to sow the initial seeds! Gardening schemes can build confidence, aid fitness, and offer the opportunity to learn skills that can open up job opportunities. The Dandelion Time charity in Kent uses gardening and animal care programmes to help young traumatised people turn around their lives. Such projects could be replicated elsewhere to great effect.

On top of this, by learning how to grow fruit and vegetables, children can better understand how to make healthy eating choices to address the obesity epidemic. And with children from poorer backgrounds twice as likely to be obese than rich, it is important to run such schemes in the schools and areas where this will have the maximum impact. Last year, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Green Plan It Challenge engaged 800 secondary school pupils, between the ages of 12 and 14, in designing and planning their own garden, with very positive feedback.

Reconnecting children with the natural world is, of course, only part of the answer to tackling the mental and physical health problems facing our younger generations. Nevertheless, it could be an integral part of the solution. The power of splashing through a puddle, running through long grass, or watching a blue tit at a bird feeder should not be underestimated.

By pulling together a cross-section of environmental and voluntary organisations, local authorities, the NHS, and the wider community, it is possible to develop a plan of action that can utilise the magical health potential that nature can impart for the benefit of all.

25 comments for: Rebecca Pow: Reconnecting young people with the natural world would bring benefits to mental and physical health

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