Green Spaces Linked to Kids’ Cognitive Development

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“Children spend a considerable part of their active daily time at schools, and ‘green exercise’ has been related to greater mental health.”

Parents, as a rule, want to give their children every possible academic advantage. While this usually takes the form of tutors or computers, a new study suggests a surprising factor they may want to consider when checking out a new school, home, or neighborhood: Whether it provides adequate access to the natural world.

New research from Spain finds that, among second-, third-, and-fourth graders, quality time spent climbing trees and playing games on grass helps mental abilities blossom.

“Our study showed a beneficial association between exposure to green space and cognitive development among schoolchildren,” writes a research team led by Payam Dadvand of Barcelona’s Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology. This is partly, but not entirely, explained by the fact that kids who get to play in nature are exposed to less air pollution than those who hang out on city streets.

The findings echo those of a separate study we reported on last year, which found Massachusetts third-graders with greater exposure to greenness showed better academic performance in both English and math.

“Children spend a considerable part of their active daily time at schools, and ‘green exercise’ has been related to greater mental health.”

“Contact with nature is thought to play a crucial and irreplaceable role in brain development,” the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Natural environments including green spaces provide children with unique opportunities such as inciting engagement, risk-taking, discovery, creativity, mastery and control, strengthening sense of self, inspiring basic emotional states including sense of wonder, and enhancing psychological restoration.”

The study featured 2,593 children attending 36 Barcelona schools. From January 2012 through March 2013, they were given computerized tests every three months, which were designed to measure such attributes as working memory (the ability we have to hold in mind and mentally manipulate information over short periods of time) and fluid intelligence (the ability to think abstractly, reason, identify patterns, and solve problems).

The researchers estimated the amount of green space around each child’s home and school, as well as on the route they take between home and school. They also measured the level of traffic-related air pollution in each school.

The key result: After one year, kids with greater exposure to green space showed greater increases in these key cognitive abilities, on average, than their peers with less access to grass and trees. Their level of attentiveness also increased at a heightened rate.

The strongest association was that between enhanced abilities and greenness “within or surrounding school boundaries,” the researchers write. “Children spend a considerable part of their active daily time at schools, and ‘green exercise’ has been related to greater mental health.”

In addition, “Proximity to green spaces has been reported to increase physical activity,” they note, “and physical activity has been associated with better cognitive function in children.” They further point to past research suggesting “microbial input” from the natural environment may play a role in brain development.

But even the rare kid who doesn’t play outside benefits from all that greenery. The researchers found lower levels of traffic-related carbon levels inside schools that were surrounded by more green space. They believe this reduction in exposure to air pollution partly explains their positive results.

In any case, their results suggest increasing green space around schools—particularly in urban areas—could be a simple, low-cost way to enhance students’ cognitive development. The researchers note that this “advantage in mental capital” could have “lasting effects through the life course” of the kids.

So make sure your kids learn to love the library—but also see to it that they spend plenty of quality time in their tree house.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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