Much has been researched and published over the past two decades into the health benefits of contact with nature. But these have largely focused on green space or natural spaces. ‘Blue spaces’ also have unique sensory qualities and facilitate a distinct range of leisure activities. Of course they also pose a number of hazards, particularly for children, and this may increase parental concerns.

Even if green and blue spaces can be conceptualised as separate entities, they cannot be distinctly separated from each other. Terrestrial attributes around blue spaces, such as paths and easily accessible watersides, usually contain green vegetation and many green spaces also contain or border on water bodies such as rivers, wetlands, ponds and the coast. Blue and green space experiences are frequently bound together and childhood exposure to blue spaces is likely to be predictive of the future frequency of green space visits as well.

A new extensive study by researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK has investigated those benefits relating to days at the beach. Their report entitled “Mechanisms underlying childhood exposure to blue spaces and adult subjective well-being: An 18-country analysis” (Australia was one of those countries) was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology Volume 84 December 2022,

The researchers point out: “We know far less about the benefits of blue spaces, or the role childhood contact has in these relationships in later life”.

Their new report is based on data from the BlueHealth International Survey (BIS), a cross-sectional survey co-ordinated by the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health. The analysis took in 15,000 people from 14 European countries and four non-European countries/states: Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and California.

Respondents were asked to recall their blue space experiences between the ages of 0-16 years. These included how local were these blue spaces: Were they close by to where the participant lived as a child, or were they some distance away? How often did they visit these spaces? How comfortable were their parents or guardians with their playing in these settings?

They were also asked about “more recent contact with green and blue spaces over the last four weeks, and mental health over the last two weeks”. So the assessment of a participant’s mental health was based on how they’d been feeling of late, rather than on a clinical evaluation. For many people, some of the happiest memories from childhood were those days spent at the beach, or fishing, swimming and sailing or on a river. Such family holidays where when the family was at its most relaxed.

When talking to people who grew up on or near a beach or a lake – or even on a farm – it was common to find that memories of childhood happiness are tied to those places, where they could roam freely and soak up the diverse beauties of nature. On that basis, it’s no stretch to wonder if an abundance of such memories has a positive impact on one’s mental health in adulthood.

The researchers concluded that “adults with better mental health are more likely to report having spent time playing in and around coastal and inland waters, such as rivers and lakes (also known collectively as blue spaces) as children”. The finding was replicated in each of the countries studied.

This recent evidence suggests that growing up near blue spaces is associated with a lower prevalence of a variety of mental health disorders during adulthood, even after accounting for concurrent green space exposure. These findings place exposure to blue spaces during childhood as a potentially important predictor of adult mental well-being in its own right.

Valeria Vitale, lead author and PhD candidate at Sapienza University of Rome, said: “Our findings suggest that building familiarity and confidence in and around blue spaces during childhood may stimulate an inherent joy of nature and encourage people to seek out recreational nature experiences, with beneficial consequences for adult mental health.”

Dr Leanne Martin, co-author and a postdoctoral research associate at Exeter, said: “Water settings can be dangerous for children, and parents are right to be cautious. This research suggests though that supporting children to feel comfortable in these settings and developing skills such as swimming at an early age can have previously unrecognised life-long benefits.”

This is probably the most significant finding in the study. The main point is: teach your children to swim, and give them practical guidance on how to stay safe at the beach or on the river, which can be tricky. On that basis, if young beach-goers do grow up with greater resilience – a more than reasonable suggestion, if not a conclusion in this study – it’s because they enjoyed their parents’ confidence.

The study raises questions about how outdoorsy are today’s children? Dr Mathew White, co-author and Senior Scientist at the University of Vienna, said: “The current study is adding to our growing awareness of the need for urban planners and local bodies responsible for managing our green and blue spaces to provide safe, accessible access to natural settings for the healthy mental and physical development of our children.”