At this point it seems the evidence is overwhelming—new studies seem to arrive on our desks each week that suggest simply spending time in green spaces can improve our health, both mentally and physically. As avid outdoors people, we instinctively know that, but it’s always nice to have science confirm our suspicions. And recently, researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark published yet another study about the outside/good health connection that may provide the most conclusive evidence yet. Getting outside, walking around, hearing the rustle of trees, feeling the wind on our face, the rain on our backs, the sun on our skin—the more we do that as kids, the happier we are as adults, their study suggests. And this was one heck of a study.

From 1985 until 2013, the researchers combed data from one million Danish residents. They looked at everything from income to educational level, history of familial mental illness, as well as how much green space surrounded where the residents had grown up. Because they had so much data to work with, the researchers were able to try and control for socioeconomic factors—kids who grow up wealthier probably have more access to green space, for example. Yet even factoring those discrepancies in, researchers found that being raised surrounded by nature as a child meant a 55 percent lower incidence of developing mental health issues as adults. Even better, it seemed that the more time children spent in nature, the better as far as mental health outcomes were concerned.

If we were talking about a new medicine that had this kind of effect the buzz would be huge—these results suggest that being able to go for a walk in the park as a kid is just as impactful.

The researchers were able to use satellite data to examine how much green space surrounded the residences of the subjects in the study. It was as simple as noting that kids who grew up in areas surrounded by more visible vegetation meant better mental health outcomes as adults. Wilderness, public parks, even urban green spaces, it didn’t seem to matter. The ramifications could be massive for future city and regional planning.

“There is increasing evidence that the natural environment plays a larger role for mental health than previously thought,” said Kristine Engemann, who led the study. “Green space seemed to have an association that was similar in strength to other known influences on mental health, like history of mental health disorders in the family, or socioeconomic status.”

What the study can’t show, however, is why this should be the case. Is it simple proximity to trees and vegetation? Or is it likely that kids who had access to more natural environments were more likely to be outside, getting excercise, perhaps doing so in groups and forming strong social bonds that they carried with themselves to adulthood? Maybe spending time in nature taught self-reliance, resilience, patience.

Or could it be that something in nature speaks to us in a way that won’t show up on a scientific study? Doctors are prescribing nature walks for patients to help with chronic physical ailments. Mountain biking groups are healing mental illness sufferers. Surfing is a very real salve for veterans with severe PTSD and physical ailments. It probably shouldn’t be so surprising that growing up in a natural environment would also have powerful health benefits.

Perhaps there’s simply a real physiological connection to being more in tune with the natural world. It’s certainly something we feel when camping, when in the middle of the sea, when scaling a mountain peak, or even when lounging next to a lake.

“If we were talking about a new medicine that had this kind of effect the buzz would be huge,” said Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond. “But these results suggest that being able to go for a walk in the park as a kid is just as impactful.”

Via Smart Parenting: What a Famous Psychologist Told Us About Raising Smart and Happy Kids

Dr. Peter Gray, a world acclaimed evolutionary psychologist, was a panelist in a forum when he was asked why play was important. He answered, “Because it makes children happy.” He was ignored for the rest of the discussion. In a succeeding forum, he was again asked the same question. This time, he responded differently: “Because it’s how children learn.” It got him more speaking time to elaborate on the developmental benefits of play.

The above goes to show that when it comes to matters about children, one will only get a room’s avid attention when you talk about how to make children smart, rather than happy. But child development experts like Dr. Gray wants us to remember that our kids learn the most when our little ones are happy.

We got the opportunity to catch Dr. Gray speak after asked me to attend the Jumpstart 2017 Early Leadership Symposium. It was organized by Rethasia International and Miriam College and held at the Henry Sy Sr. Innovation Center in Miriam College.

Dr. Peter Gray, who is a research professor at Boston College, author of the book Free to Learn, and writer for the blog “Freedom to Learn” for Psychology Today, speaks passionately about the need for children to play. He backs it up by citing studies he conducted with his colleagues and other researchers.

There was so much process to process after his talk. But here are three main takeaways I feel he would like all parents to know.

#1 Let kids learn how to explore and entertain themselves

Dr. Gray prescribes “self-directed play” where children can choose what to do during play time. Play-based schools who promote self-directed play give their students the chance to freely explore the classroom with subjects like Dramatics Play, Blocks, Science, Math & Manipulatives, Reading, Art & Writing. Here, they engage and learn to resolve social conflicts, craft artworks or stories for fun, or figure out how to solve the structural problems of a spaceship they made or complete a puzzle.

At home, he advises parents to let children play independently as well as with other children. Having the time to join others in playgrounds or playgroups has countless benefits, especially when they can choose their games and make up the rules.

Gray had also emphasized that imagination is developed through self-directed play. Children need the chance to create stories, build castles, experiment with water, sculpt clay figures, read about things that interests them, or play dress up. All these develop their creative side, a quality that is not only important among artists, but all industry leaders who are looking for individuals who can think out of the box and come up with novel and unique ideas.

#2 Academic skills is good, but another set of skills that may be better

Parents who are overly concerned about their children’s intelligence should, according to Gray, learn the difference between academic and intellectual abilities. The former can be taught in schools “using demonstration, recitation, memorization and repeated practice.” The latter has to do with “reasoning, hypothesizing, exploring, and understanding.” Intellectual abilities are mainly developed by the child through self-initiated activities. Parents can help by providing nurturing environments, like when we read to children or play games that involve numbers and measuring. But for intellectual abilities to truly develop, children need to be happily engaged and motivated.

Gray believes that for our kids to become successful and happy adults, we need to focus on the intellectual rather than the academic skills. He also warns focusing on academic skills can negatively affect the development of a child’s intellectual skills. It puts on a lot pressure for children who have difficulty with memorization tasks and are shamed into thinking they are slow or stupid. These kids begin to think there is something wrong with them and begin to withdraw, give up or misbehave.

Source: iStock

#3 Parents need to create an environment where their kids can play

It’s not only in school that children are having less time to play. Thanks to homework, extra-curricular activities, safety and health fears of parents, and lack of accessible neighborhood play spaces, children are not playing together as much anymore.

Over the years, we’ve been seeing an increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide rates. Narcissism is on the rise, because people are missing the chance to develop empathy. Children aren’t filling up neighborhood parks anymore and missing out on inventing games and rules of play that are fun, creative and fair. They have less and less opportunities to learn how to win and lose gracefully. Specialists are correlating the rise in depression to the decline in play and happiness in childhood.

We, grown-ups, know how play makes us feel. We’re aware of how it ignites our interests in things that we will pursue with a passion. In my experience as a teacher, I have had students who made glorious messes in the art area, and they turned out to be artists who will sell their beautiful work. I had a student who loved being a Power Ranger and is now a US Marine. I had two little girls who always played with animals and plants and grew up to study Environmental Science.

With play, children have the chance to ignite a spark that will fuel them to do something meaningful and satisfying with their lives. Why would we, as a society, consciously deprive our children of play – of the chance to be happy while they are young and lead satisfying lives as adults?
At the start of the day, Dr. Gray told us to be skeptical about whatever he said. “You don’t have to take everything I say at face value…Question it.”

While we question Dr. Gray’s teachings, let’s also question ourselves. We all want what is best for our children, but what is more important to us, for our children to be happy and smart or to be school smart? If we sat in a room and were told how play makes our children happy, would we care? Or would we only tune in when the speaker starts to tell us how we can make our children smarter?