There has been an increasing amount of information on the health benefits of spending time in nature. These benefits include improvement of emotional and physical health, and benefits for learning for children. Now, a new study in JAMA Ophthalmology and reported by the New York Times points to the benefits of being in nature on healthy development of the eye and eyesight in children, and the negative impact of not enough time spent outdoors in natural sunlight.
The Times article notes that there has been a significant increase in myopia in children since the 1970s, and the research reported in the JAMA study points to behavioral changes in children and lack one time spent outdoors in natural light as a factor.
“The growing incidence of myopia is related to changes in children’s behavior, especially how little time they spend outdoors, often staring at screens indoors instead of enjoying activities illuminated by daylight.” (1)
The article does say that genes and family heredity play a role in myopia, however the rapid increase in myopia is likely not just genetic: “Given that genes don’t change that quickly, environmental factors, especially children’s decreased exposure to outdoor light, are the likely cause of this rise in myopia, experts believe. Consider, for example, factors that keep modern children indoors: an emphasis on academic studies and their accompanying homework, the irresistible attraction of electronic devices and safety concerns that demand adult supervision during outdoor play. All of these things drastically limit the time youngsters now spend outside in daylight, to the likely detriment of the clarity of their distance vision.” (1)
While this study points to the lack of sunlight as the main cause of myopia in children, there have also been studies that indicate a correlation between myopia and sustained near-work activity: “Both genetics and environmental factors play a role in the development and progression of myopia. Near-work is activity performed at a short working distance, such as reading and use of electronic devices. Near-work activity is one of the environmental factors that has been considered to be a potential cause of myopia.However, other studies do not support this claim.” (2)
This recent research on the importance of sunlight on the development of the eye and eyesight is another example in a growing list of evidence supporting the benefits of spending time outdoors in nature. Since children spend a significant amount of their time during daylight hours at school, it makes sense that school programs that incorporate time outdoors in nature will support the healthy development of their students. Additionally, school programs that provide a balance of near-work activity with activities that allow for my distance and varied focusing will also support healthy eye development.