Nature Contact as a Means to Health and Physical Activity

by aglowka November 8, 2019 comments

Published November 8, 2019

Nature Contact as a Means to Health and Physical Activity 

State of Play: Seattle-King County examined youth physical activity across many sectors, including organized sport, outdoor recreation, as well as free play at parks. This allowed us to understand the ways that physical activity overlaps with nature contact, and the role that park access plays in both of these critical elements of youth development.

Spending time outside is good for everyone.

Children playing outside with red ball


King County has 260,000 acres of green space; many Seattle-ites (87%) have walkable access (within ½ mile) to a park, compared to approximately 56% of the rest of the county (Arakaki, 2019). The region is also known for outdoor recreation outside of neighborhood parks: by car, residents can reach hiking trails, kayaking, skiing, snowboarding, and many other outdoor activities within an hour or two of downtown. 

A growing body of research supports the health benefits of nature contact. Frumkin et al. (2017) outlined a range of benefits of nature contact for all people that also included improved birth outcomes, better eyesight, reduced aggression, and greater happiness. Benefits for children are similar to those identified for physical activity and organized sports: positive outcomes in physical health, cognitive functioning, self-control, psychological well-being, and imaginative play (Chawla, 2015). 

Unfortunately, many youth spend more time in vehicles moving between indoor activities than outside in nature (McCurdy et al., 2010), and State of Play found a variety of other concerns related to nature and park access: 

  • Infrastructure does not meet demand to support youth physical activity, especially in South King County. Most of South King County has poor transit access to parks, reflective of less green space and less well-connected transit networks. Youth in South King County have fewer playfields and parks in their neighborhoods, and access to them is more restrictive than the rest of the region.

  • Income, race, and language predicts park use. Youth of color, youth who don’t speak English at home, and less-affluent youth spend significantly less time at the parks near them than their white, English-speaking, and/or more affluent peers. Fifty-four percent of parents whose household makes more than $50,000 annually spent at least three days in nature with their kids during the previous month while 44% of parents making under $50,000 did.

  • Park time might replace screen time. Youth who spend any time at nearby parks during the month spend less time on screens on school days. Similarly, those who go to the park more than once a week spend significantly less time on screens and those who never go to the park spend significantly more time on screens. 

  • The blog post, "Can screens and physical activity coexist?" highlighted a key mismatch in our region. Parents value outdoor time, but many youth say their parents won’t let them go to parks. It seems parents’ collective decisions not to let kids play outside influence other parents. Parents, in focus groups, explain that if they saw more kids in parks or riding bikes in their neighborhood, they would be more likely to allow their children to do the same. 

The outdoor built environment is a means to promote physical activity, but neighborhood-based race and income disparities exist in infrastructure access. There is work being done here to support equitable access to parks and nature, but we can do more. 

The King County Play Equity Coalition is working to support equitable access to parks and nature. Policymakers have a role to play in making nature and parks accessible for children and adults alike. The built environment greatly affects opportunity to outdoor activity: connected streets, sidewalks, and access to outdoor recreational facilities encourage “active travel,” while absence of playgrounds and sidewalks limit physical activity (McCurdy et al., 2010). However, disparities in the built environment also may contribute to disparities in health by race or income. One study explored the connection between perceived neighborhood environmental attributes associated with physical activity and neighborhood income across 32 neighborhoods in Seattle and Baltimore, MD. Researchers found that residents from more affluent neighborhoods reported “more favorable esthetics, pedestrian/biking facilities, safety from traffic, safety from crime, and access to recreation facilities than residents of low-income areas” (Sallis et al., 2011, p. 1).

Our next blog post will take a deeper dive into what is being done in King County to support equitable access to parks and nature and highlight key programs making a difference in our region.



  • Arakaki, E. (June 2019). Connecting people to parks in King County. The Wilderness Society. Retrieved from
  • Chawla, L. (2015). Benefits of Nature Contact for Children. Journal of Planning Literature, 30(4), p. 433–452.
  • Frumkin, H., Bratman, G.N., Breslow, S.J., Cochran, B., Kahn Jr, P.H., Lawler, J.J., Levin, P.S., Tandon, P.S., Varanasi, U., Wolf, K.L. and Wood, S.A., 2017. Nature contact and human health: A research agenda. Environmental health perspectives, 125(7), p. 075001.
  • McCurdy, L. E., Winterbottom, K. E., Mehta, S. S., & Roberts, J. R. (2010). Using nature and outdoor activity to improve children's health. Current problems in pediatric and adolescent health care, 40(5), p. 102-117.
  • Sallis, J. F., Slymen, D. J., Conway, T. L., Frank, L. D., Saelens, B. E., Cain, K., & Chapman, J. E. (2011). Income disparities in perceived neighborhood built and social environment attributes. Health & place, 17(6), 1274-1283.