Access to outdoor green spaces helps reduce stress and improves attention spans in children by offering them a peaceful environment, according to a new study published last month.
In an interview with Science Daily, lead author of the study and University of Colorado Boulder professor of environmental design Louise Chawla says that since children spend the majority of their time in school, it is important to integrate daily contact with nature at school.
Chawla argues that schools can reduce stress simply by allowing children to play in green spaces, instead of only focusing on teaching children how to cope with stress.
“Many schools already offer stress management programs,” she said. “But they’re about teaching individuals how to deal with stress instead of creating stress-reducing environments.”
The researchers analyzed responses to green schoolyards in Maryland and Colorado through interviews with students, teachers, and parents. More than 1,200 hours of observation were recorded.
In the study, young elementary school children were allowed to play in wooded areas, older elementary school children used a natural habitat for class lessons, and high schoolers were allowed to garden.
The study found that children viewed the green spaces as calming. The natural areas allowed students to escape stress, improve their attention spans, and build confidence.
Elementary school teachers in Maryland reported that after spending recess time in the woods, their students came back to the classroom with longer attention spans. In Denver, the results of the study point to green spaces as relaxing environments that encourage better behavior.
“In more than 700 hours of observations at the Denver school’s green outdoor space, zero uncivil behaviors were observed,” said Chawla. “But there were many incidents of arguments and rudeness indoors, as there are at many schools.”
The high schoolers who spent time gardening told researchers they liked being outside in the fresh air, feeling connected to nature, successfully nurturing living things, and having time to self reflect.
Other studies have shown that children today spend minimal time outside. 43 percent of parents say their children would rather watch television inside than go outside and play. About 10 percent say their kids would even rather do homework than go outside.
Many parents, without the time to supervise outdoor playtime, rely on schools to ensure that their children spend time outside during school hours, either through physical education or recess.
However, as Chawla mentions, spending time outside simply isn’t enough. Natural terrain schoolyards that include water features, dirt, and plants foster relationships and feelings of competence. Having access to the outdoors—and not just asphalt and a playground—has its benefits for children.
Advocates for children spending time in natural spaces argue that it’s a multi-sensory activity that forces children’s brains to work in unique ways to understand new stimuli, stimulates creativity, helps children develop a respect for living things, and increases their physical activity level.
Other researchers have suggested alterations to recess this year. In January, a University of Delaware professor suggested that schools need recess to be at least 30 minutes long for children to derive lasting benefit.
Photo: Students at High Shoals elementary plant for the second time with the help of Dean Angle and Representative Chuck Williams. (UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences/Flickr Creative Commons)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.