Research Summary

A narrative and systematic review of the behavioural, cognitive and emotional effects of passive nature exposure on young people: Evidence for prescribing change

Children can experience the health and well-being benefits of nature through both active nature engagement and passive nature exposure.

Landscape and Urban Planning

This paper provides both a narrative and a systematic review of the literature on the emotional, behavioral, and cognitive benefits of nature for children. The narrative review includes investigations into the beneficial outcomes of both active nature engagement and passive nature exposure. Active nature engagement involves active uses of nature, as realized in such therapies as horticultural therapy and wilderness therapy. Passive nature exposure, on the other hand, occurs when “activities take place in a natural environment which itself is not actively integrated or consciously used in an activity.” Outcomes relating to nature-integrated therapies and nature-based learning programs are included in the narrative review. Findings from the narrative review “show strong substantial evidence” that natural settings are associated with improved emotional, behavioral and cognitive performance. Yet, nature in these programs “is so inextricably combined with other activities that it is impossible to determine what factors account for positive impacts.”

The systematic review includes only pre-post or longitudinal studies focusing on the possible benefits of passive nature exposure to the health and well-being of children.  Only six studies met the inclusion criteria. Three of these studies involved passive nature exposure in a school setting. Other settings where children experienced passive nature exposure included gardens, woods, fields, and urban parks. Passive nature exposure studies can be categorized as “immersive” or “surrounding”. For immersive studies, participants were physically present in nature but did not make it an active component of their activities (e.g., walking, running, or sitting passively in nature). For “surrounding” studies, nearby nature (or surrounding greenness) was measured through such methods as judging the greenness of views from windows and using the “normalized difference vegetation index” (NVDI), which is based on satellite imaging. Immersive studies generally found improved cognitive function, including improved concentration, mood, and on-task behavior. Surrounding studies reported various positive outcomes including improved working memory and improved attention. The studies in the systematic review found no reported behavioral changes or long-term outcomes.

Findings from this research review show that even passive nature exposure has the potential for contributing to children’s behavioral, cognitive and emotional development, especially in relation to their attentional capacity, mood and memory. While these findings indicate that prescribing nature exposure for children is advantageous, more rigorous research is needed to draw definitive conclusions. Specific recommendations are offered.