CHILDREN from less affluent backgrounds found Covid-19 lockdown more mentally challenging due to having less of a connection with nature, a new study has found.

The study, conducted by the University of Sussex and University of Cambridge, found that children who increased their connection to nature during the first lockdown were likely to have less behavioural and emotional problems.

The study also found that children from affluent families tended to have increased their connection to nature during the pandemic more than their less affluent peers.

Nearly two thirds of parents reported a change in their child’s connection to nature during lockdown, while a third of children whose connection to nature decreased displayed increased problems of wellbeing - through increased sadness, anxiety or acting out.

The researchers say the results strengthen the case for nature as a low-cost method of mental health support for children, and suggest that more effort should be made to support children in connecting with nature - both at home and at school.

The researchers’ suggestions for achieving this include reducing the number of structured extracurricular activities for children to allow for more time outside, provision of gardening projects in schools and funding for schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas, to implement nature-based learning programmes.

University of Sussex psychology lecturer Dr Elian Fink said connecting to nature may be an effective way of supporting children’s wellbeing, particularly as children return to normal routines.

“Our findings could be helpful in redesigning lockdown rules should the UK need to return to these conditions in the future, and particularly to countries whose lockdown restrictions prevented children from accessing nature at all,” she said.

“Extending the amount of time that children can access nature, or extending the distance that children could be allowed to travel to access nature, could have a beneficial impact on their mental health.”

Samantha Friedman, of University of Cambridge, said lockdown meant children no longer had their normal school activities, routines and social interactions.

“The removal of these barriers gave us a novel context to look at how changes in connection with nature affected mental health,” she said.

“We know that access to and engagement with nature is associated with wide-ranging benefits in children and adults, including lowering levels of anxiety and depression, and reducing stress.

“Connecting with nature may have helped buffer some UK children against the effects of the lockdown, but we found that children from less affluent families were less likely to have increased their connection to nature during that time.”

Over half of these families in the study reported that their child’s connection to nature increased during the first Covid-19 lockdown.

The remaining parents whose children’s connection to nature decreased or stayed the same during this period also reported that their children were experiencing greater wellbeing problems.

“Mental health problems can manifest in different ways in different children. We found that a greater connection with nature was associated with reductions in both emotional and behavioural problems,” Fink added.

“In reality the contrasting experiences of access to nature between different socio-economic groups may be even starker than our study found because respondents to our online study were largely drawn from more affluent societal groups.”