Health Benefits of “Green Spaces” for Kids
By Evelyn Cunico, MA, MSLIS
Posted July 09, 2015
Observational studies conducted by educational and scientific organizations have provided evidence that children who play in outdoor “green spaces,” such as school playgrounds with trees and other vegetation, neighborhood parks, and home backyards with grass, experience physical and psychological health benefits.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) highlights cognitive health, with evidence that exposure to green spaces within and around schools may enhance the brain development of children.
Cognitive abilities are defined as working memory and attentiveness. Working memory is defined as the ability to sort and retain short-term information, which is essential for learning skills, such as math and reading. “Greenness” is defined as any space with vegetation.
A study titled, “Green Spaces and Cognitive Development in Primary School Children,” published in the June 30, 2015 issue of PNAS , reports a link between exposure to green space at school and development of cognitive abilities.
Led by Payam Dadvand and other researchers at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) in Barcelona, Spain, the study assessed the association between exposures to green space, captured using satellite data, and measures of cognitive development in nearly 2,600 schoolchildren.
Children were in the second to fourth grades, aged seven through ten years, from 36 primary schools, between January 2012 and March 2013.
Cognitive development was assessed using four repeated (every three months) computerized cognitive tests for each outcome of 12-month developmental change of working memory, superior working memory, and inattentiveness, according to the study abstract.
Researchers found that students with more exposure to green space experienced a five percent increase in working memory, a six percent increase in superior working memory, and a one percent reduction in inattentiveness, regardless of ethnicity, maternal education, and parental employment, according to a CREAL news report.
Still, proving a direct connection between green spaces and brain development is difficult. For example, researchers reported that school children with the highest improvement in cognitive skills had the lease exposure to traffic-related pollution (elemental carbon), which, itself, has been negatively linked to cognitive development.
The Dadvand study cites an earlier article, titled, “At Home with Nature: Effects of “Greenness” on Children’s Cognitive Functioning,” by Nancy M. Wells, published in November 2000 in the journal Environment and Behavior.
The study that is described by Wells observed children who were living in a poor urban home environment and who then moved to an improved home environment with more greenness. Results indicated that children whose homes improved the most in terms of greenness following relocation tended to have the highest levels of cognitive functioning following the move, according to the Wells abstract.
Public Policy Action
Although it is not clear how connections between green spaces and cognitive abilities occur, evidence is increasing that contact with nature plays a central role in brain development, as well as in physical and psychological health.
In terms of public policy, encouraging our public officials to add trees and other vegetation to neighborhoods and school yards may be one solution to the challenge of how to improve the health of our children.
Disclaimer: The information presented in this blog should not replace the medical advice of your doctor. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any disease, illness, or other health condition without first consulting with your medical doctor or other healthcare provider.
Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL). “Green Spaces Influence the Cognitive Growth in Children,” CREAL News.
(Accessed 05 July 2015)
Dadvand, P., Nieuwenhuijsen, M.J., Esnaola, M., Forns, J., Basagana, X., Alvarez-Pedrerol, M., Rivas, I., Lopez-Vicente, M., De Castro Pascual, M., Su, J., Jerrett, M., Querol, X., and Sunyer, J. “Green Spaces and Cognitive Development in Primary Schoolchildren.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). 2015 June 30; vol.112(no.26):7937-42.
(PNAS abstract accessed 02 July 2015)
Dadvand, P., et al. [as above]
(PubMed abstract accessed 02 July 2015)
Feda, D.M., Seelbinder, A., Baek, S., Raja, S., Yin, L., and Roemmich, J.N. “Neighborhood Parks and Reduction in Stress among Adolescents: Results from Buffalo, New York.” Indoor and Built Environment: SAGE Journals. Published online before print May 20, 2014.
(Abstract accessed 19 June 2015)
Kuo, Frances E., and Faber-Taylor, Andrea. “A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence from a National Study.” American Public Health Association. American Journal of Public Health. 2004 September 94(9):1580-1586. [Authors with University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]
(Full Text accessed 19 June 2015)
Wells, Nancy M. “At Home with Nature: Effects of “Greenness” on Children’s Cognitive Functioning.” Environment and Behavior . 2000 November; 32(6):775-795.
(Abstract accessed 03 July 2015)