Green space could actually be better for young brains than we thought

Public schools are onto something as they lead their students out of the classroom and into the fresh air.

Exposure to green space reduces behavioral problems, gives children a cognitive boost and, according to recent studies, can even lead to better school performance.

Proponents of Britain’s burgeoning forest school movement, inherited from Scandinavian outdoor kindergarten classes, have long made claims about the benefits of children playing outside and connecting with nature.

And the importance of green space for our general well-being is clearly proven. In the groundbreaking 2010 Marmot review on the link between health and inequality, Michael Marmot noted that “creating a physical environment in which people can live healthier lives with a greater sense of well-being is a hugely important factor in reducing inequality in health field”.

As part of our Access to Green Space series, we looked at the amount of space our children have at school – and how much time they get to enjoy it. Over several months, our data team collected detailed information on the amount of land owned by England’s top private schools, then used satellite data and a range of other variables to calculate how much of this was green space accessible to pupils.

We also looked at the amount of outdoor space available to England’s state schools, and spoke to experts about some of the issues facing our children. As Tina Farr from St Ebbes primary school in Oxford told us: “We need to start running schools that are in line with healthy child development. We can give them six feeding hours a day and that is absolutely necessary.”

The review cited numerous studies linking green space to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, better mental health and lower stress levels, better general health and the ability to cope.

But now the science on the specific benefits for young people is catching up and demonstrating the positive impact on children’s cognitive development. For example, a 2015 paper from the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona followed 2,500 children in the city for a year and found that students whose schools had more green space in and around them had better working memory and had less inattention.

They found that greenery within and around schools – measured using satellite imagery – was linked to an improved mental ability to continuously manipulate and update information, abilities known as working memory and superior working memory.

The positive effect can be partly explained by air pollution or the lack thereof, researchers said. The results prompted Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, one of the main researchers, to recommend schools to ‘green’ their environment. “If you put some trees there, I’m sure you’ll see some impact overall,” he said. “Your grades are going up a little.”

And more recent research from Belgium, published in the online journal Plos Medicine, echoed these positive findings, but went a step further and concluded that children raised in greener areas have higher IQs, as well as less difficult behavior.

The analysis of more than 600 Belgian students aged 10 to 15 found that a 3% increase in the greenness of their neighborhood increased their IQ score by an average of 2.6 points, with the increase in IQ points being especially significant for children at the bottom. of the spectrum, where small increases can make a big difference. Tim Nawrot, professor of environmental epidemiology at Hasselt University in Belgium who worked on the study, said: “What this study adds to IQ is a more difficult, established clinical measure. I think city builders and urban planners should prioritize investments in green spaces because there is real value in creating an optimal environment in which children can develop their full potential.”

Other research has found that children with more green space near their homes have significantly stronger bones, potentially leading to lifelong health benefits, while another study shows that greener play areas boost children’s immune systems.

In a 2017 paper, researchers followed 562 Norwegian preschoolers for four years. They concluded: “Overall, the findings from this study suggest that high exposure to outdoor environments could be a cheap, accessible and environmentally friendly way to support and improve children’s self-regulatory abilities and cognitive development.

“It can also be a safe intervention for children with attention disorders. For some children, high doses of nature can be an effective alternative to medication.”

A UNICEF discussion paper, The Necessity of Urban Green Space for Children’s Optimal Development, identifies multiple benefits for children at different stages of their development.

In the early years, up to age six, it says proven benefits include improved balance and motor coordination, better sleep, reduced myopia and care for nature in adulthood.

For people aged 15 to 17, Unicef ​​says benefits include increased physical activity, improved attention, greater ability to cope with stressful events, lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, and a greater enthusiasm for learning. “Every child, wherever they live in the city, should be within walking distance of a safe and welcoming public green space,” the report concludes.

Eirini Flouri, professor of developmental psychology at University College London, has been researching the impact of green space on children since 2012. Like other studies, her findings suggest that exposure to green space can give primary school children a cognitive boost. For adolescents, it is beneficial for their mental health and well-being.

“The epidemiological literature is very clear – we know that in adult populations, especially among very old populations, we see a very important role for green space for health and cognitive functioning.

“So I expected that in the early years. But there was actually nothing strong and consistent with regard to their well-being, but we do see effects on their cognitive functioning, especially aspects related to spatial cognition.

“Problem solving, finding ways, all these non-verbal skills really boost cognitive functioning in childhood and they also translate into better performance in school.

“What this means is that areas where young children spend time require a minimum of green space. Noise and pollution can have quite detrimental effects on brain development, so it should be an area where noise levels are acceptable, that is safe, not heavily polluted and visually pleasing to the child.”

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