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Urban Trees Enhance Children’s Brains, Too

Even wee ones need a break from the city bustle.

jocelyndale / Flickr

Psychologists have found time and again that a walk in a city park is much better for the tired brain than a walk down typical city streets. (Even a quick window view of some greenery can do a body good.) The leading explanation is called “attention restoration theory”: whereas our mental faculties get fatigued by the busy streets and tall buildings and crowded corners of urban life, they get refreshed by the undemanding nature of … nature.

Most of the work on attention restoration theory has focused on adults or hyperactive children. But new research from Anne Schutte and Julia Torquati of the University of Nebraska and Heidi Beattie of Troy University extends the restorative power of urban trees to very young kids (under 8) whose attention capacities are healthy but still developing. They conclude in Environment and Behavior (sans citations):

These results suggest that despite their less well-developed attentional system, even young children can benefit from time in nature.

The research trio recruited two groups of children for the study (excluding those with diagnosed attention deficits): preschoolers (ages 4 and 5) and school aged (ages 7 and 8). In line with previous attention restoration studies, the youngsters came into the lab then had their brains drained of some energy with a jigsaw puzzle. Half the kids then took a (chaperoned!) 20-minute walk through a typical urban environment (left), and half took a nature-filled stroll (right):

Environment and Behavior

After the walk they kids returned to the lab and took a series of several tests designed to measure various aspects of their executive functioning. (A week later the children came back for the same series of tests but took the walk they hadn’t done before.) The idea was simple: if urban nature refreshed the mind, the kids who did the park walk should score higher than those who didn’t.

The researchers did find some evidence that trees can restore attention in young, healthy, developing brains. In one task, the children saw a target pop up on a computer screen (such as a spaceship), then saw a distraction pop up (a yellow dot), then had to move the cursor to the spot where the target had been—a test of attention, memory, and spatial awareness in one. The reaction times of kids who’d taken the nature walk was significantly faster than those who’d made the city stroll. The spatial accuracy of the cursor was also significantly greater in preschoolers who’d done the nature walk; the results weren’t statistically significant for school-aged kids, but tended in the same direction.

In other tests, however, nature didn’t have a measurable effect. There were no differences in performance, regardless of the type of walk, on an inhibition task that required kids to press a spacebar when they saw a fish on the screen but avoid pressing it when they saw a shark. Another combined memory and attention task came back inconclusive—though this final test occurred about 30 minutes after the walk, and the effects might have worn off.

Aside from the mixed findings, the research had some shortcomings. Only 16 or 17 kids of each age (4, 5, 7, and 8) participated—a relatively small sample that invites the need for study replication. Additionally, the researchers didn’t make a true before-and-after analysis of individual executive functioning because they didn’t take baseline (i.e. pre-walk) measures of brain game performance.

But the results still offer some initial support that urban parks enhance a child’s brain. Here’s the practical upshot from the research trio:

[T]hese findings along with those from other studies have important implications for educators and policy-makers as they make decisions about green space in child playgrounds, amount of time for recess, and even the planting of trees and the provision of green space in urban neighborhoods. The lack of exposure of children to natural environments may have many consequences for their health and well-being, especially if they suffer from developmental disorders such as ADHD.

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