Nature’s influence on physical brain structure and mental health may be much more powerful than we give it credit. Yes, it has a way of helping people unwind, but it also seems to affect actual brain development in children.
Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) published a new study on children in primary schools. They discovered that children raised in homes surrounded by greenery had more white and grey matter in the brain. Typically, scientists associate this type of brain matter with increased cognitive function.
Green Spaces Support Brain Development in Children
ISGlobal partnered with Hospital del Mar in Spain and UCLA Fielding School of Public Health (UCLA FSPH) to study the effects of green spaces on children. The study encompassed 253 school children in Barcelona, Spain. It is part of ISGlobal’s BREATHE project, which aims to study the impact of air pollution in cities on cognitive development.
The study adds to growing evidence suggesting that early life exposure to green space and other environmental factors can exert measurable and lasting effects on our health through the life course.” ~ Michael Jerrett, department chair and professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the UCLA FSPH
To measure lifetime exposure to greenery, researchers used satellite information based on the children’s addresses from birth through time of study. Further, they used high-resolution 3D magnetic resonance images (MRI) to study the participants’ brain anatomy. Finally, they evaluated working memory and inattentiveness using computer tests.
Dr. Paya Dadvand from ISGlobal is the lead author of the study, which was also published in Environmental Health Perspectives. He states:
This is the first study that evaluates the association between long-term exposure to greenspace and brain structure. Our findings suggest that exposure to greenspace early in life could result in beneficial structural changes in the brain.
UCLA FSPH published the study findings, which stated:
The data analysis showed that long-term exposure to greenness was positively associated with white and grey matter volume in some parts of the brain that partly overlapped with those associated with higher scores on cognitive tests. Moreover, peak volumes of white and grey matter in the regions associated with greenspace exposure predicted better working memory and reduced inattentiveness.
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This study adds to many others that suggest nature and greenery benefit human well-being, including cognitive and behavioral development. For example, another study from the University of Illinois showed that physical activity in green spaces significantly decreased ADHD symptoms in children when compared to the same activities in any other setting.
Physical Activity and Children’s Working Memory
In another study that’s part of the BREATHE project, researchers found that a low level of physical activity at preschool and primary-school age is associated with poorer working-memory performance at primary-school age and in adolescence, respectively.
ISGlobal published the following findings:
The study found that children who had a low level of extracurricular physical activity at 6 years of age scored significantly lower on memory tests during adolescence than their more active peers. The same association was found in 7-year-olds who had had low levels of physical activity at age 4 years, although the effect size was smaller.
Scientists associate working memory with our ability to retain information in the short term for cognitive processing. It is one of the most important functions of learning and academic achievement.
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Another study from University of British Columbia showed that children who play outside are more likely to care about the environment as adults. Therefore, physical activity outside in nature is likely the optimal environment for young children.
One can only hope that more primary schools take heed to this type of research, and follow the example of this Texas school that tripled recess time, solving attention deficit disorder.
Researchers now have more concrete evidence that existence of and activity in outside green spaces benefit brain development in children. These studies send a message that we must transform our cities to include more parks, nature paths, trees and gardens. They are a testament to the importance of giving people access to natural, green environments.
Those of us who consistently spend time in green spaces have an inner knowing of nature’s “magic.” It may be the extra oxygen and the abundance of colors; it may be the effervescence of life and sound. Whatever the means, nature acts as a medium to help us disconnect from the stresses and tensions of everyday life. It gives us an immense sense of calm and helps us be present in the moment. And children are definitely not excluded from these phenomenon.
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