Green space could be even better for young brains than we realised

<span>Exposure to green spaces has been linked to better behaviour, thinking and even academic achievement.</span><span>Composite: Guardian Design/Getty Images/British Library/AP</span>
Exposure to green spaces has been linked to better behaviour, thinking and even academic achievement.Composite: Guardian Design/Getty Images/British Library/AP

The public schools are on to something when they usher their students out of the classroom and into fresh air.

Exposure to green space reduces behavioural problems, gives children a cognitive boost and may even lead to improved academic achievement, according to recent studies.

Supporters of the UK’s burgeoning forest school movement, inherited from Scandinavian outdoor kindergarten lessons, have long made claims about the benefits of children playing outdoors and connecting with nature.

And the importance of green space for our general wellbeing is strongly established. In the landmark 2010 Marmot review of the links between health and inequality, Michael Marmot noted that “creating a physical environment in which people can live healthier lives with a greater sense of wellbeing is a hugely significant factor in reducing health inequalities”.

As part of our Access to green space series, we've been looking into the amount of space that our children have at school – and how much time they get to enjoy it. Over several months, our data team put together detailed information about the amount of land owned by England’s top private schools, and then used satellite data and a number of other variables to calculate how much of that was green space accessible by the 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 of St Ebbes primary school in Oxford told us: “We need to start running schools in line with healthy child development. We can give them a nourishing six hours a day and we absolutely have to.”

The review referenced numerous studies which linked green space to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, improved mental health and reduced stress levels, perceived better general health and the ability to face problems.

But now the science on the specific benefits for young people is catching up and showing the positive impact on children’s cognitive development. A 2015 paper from Barcelona’s Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, for example, monitored 2,500 children in the city over a year and found that pupils whose schools had more green space in and around them had better working memory and less inattentiveness.

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

The positive effect might be explained in part by air pollution or the lack of it, researchers said. The results prompted Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, one of the lead researchers, to recommend that schools should “green” their environment. “If you put some trees there, I’m sure you will see some effect overall,” he said. “Your school marks will go up a little bit.”

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

The analysis of more than 600 Belgian students aged between 10 and 15 found that a 3% increase in the greenness of their neighbourhood raised their IQ score by an average of 2.6 points, with the increase in IQ points particularly significant for children at the lower end of the spectrum, where small increases could make a big difference. Tim Nawrot, a professor of environmental epidemiology at Hasselt University in Belgium who worked on the study, said: “What this study adds with IQ is a harder, well-established clinical measure. I think city builders or urban planners should prioritise investment in green spaces because it is really of value to create an optimal environment for children to 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 found greener play areas boosted children’s immune systems.

In a 2017 piece of work, researchers tracked 562 Norwegian preschoolers over four years. They concluded: “Overall, the findings from this study suggest that high exposure to outdoor environments might be a cheap, accessible and environmentally friendly way of supporting and enhancing children’s self-regulatory capacities and cognitive development.

“It may also be a safe intervention for children suffering from attention disorders. For some children, high doses of nature may 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 the age of six, it says proven benefits include improved balance and motor coordination, better sleep, reduced nearsightedness and a concern for nature in adult life.

In those aged between 15 and 17, Unicef says the benefits include increased physical activity, improved attention, greater capacity to cope with stressful events, lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, and increased enthusiasm for learning. “Each child, no matter where they live in the city, should be in easy walking distance from a safe and welcoming public green space,” it concludes.

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

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

“So I was expecting to see that in the early years as well. But there was really nothing strong and consistent with respect to their wellbeing, but we do see effects on their cognitive functioning, especially aspects that have to do with spatial cognition.

“Problem solving, way finding, all of those non-verbal skills really boost cognitive functioning in childhood and they do translate into improved achievement in school as well.

“What this means is that areas where young kids spend time need to have a minimum level of green space. Noise and pollution can have quite detrimental effects on brain development, so it must be an area where noise levels are acceptable, that’s safe, not heavily polluted and pleasant visually for the child.”