When we picture the campuses of the world’s leading educational institutions – Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton and so on – we’re likely to visualize leafy, green, open spaces, gardens, lakes and parks, along with the iconic buildings which symbolize those centers of learning. It is not a coincidence that successful educational establishment place importance on access to green, open spaces.
A recent study in PNAS shows that exposure to green spaces has a positive effect on cognitive development, especially in youngsters. The study monitored the running memory of children in schools with green spaces, and those in school without them, over the course of a year. It turned out that children who went to school in establishments with access to green spaces displayed a larger improvement in running memory than in those who didn’t.
The results of the study were obtained on the other side of the pond, by the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, in Barcelona. Researchers at the Spanish facility decided to measure and evaluate changes in children’s ability to acquire knowledge and understanding through thought and experience. With 2593 subjects, all children aged between six and ten years old, as the focus of their study, the researchers gathered data pertaining to exactly how much greenery each child in the study was exposed to in their daily life, at home and at school.
From January 2012, the researchers evaluated changes in each child’s ability to acquire knowledge. This was carried out at regular three-month intervals until March 2013. The results of these evaluations showed a strong positive relationship between the amount of greenery that each child was exposed to at school, and their running memory.
Interestingly, a major improvement in the amount of greenery than at one child was exposed to, correlated with a 5% increase in running memory, in addition to a 1% improvement in attentiveness during end-of-year classes. Students who were known to have memory issues showed a remarkable 9% improvement in running memory after having been exposed to green spaces over the course of the study.
In the published study, the researchers concluded that access to green spaces in schools and educational facilities, leads to increased physical activity among students. The green spaces were also shown to reduce overall noise levels at the institutions. It is thought that these two factors are responsible for the improvement in children’s performances. The study, however, did not find the same correlation between green spaces at children’s homes and changes in their cognitive abilities.
Furthermore, the study measured traffic-related air pollution and its effects relative to the study’s findings. Accounting for between 20-65% of the link established between green spaces and cognitive ability, it became apparent that traffic pollution – lower in green areas – plays a crucial role.
Payam Dadvand, one of the authors of the study, stated that the opportunities afforded to children by green spaces, were likely majorly responsible for the link. Engagement with others, risk tasking, discovery and creativity are all facilitated by children’s access to green spaces, and these factors may be responsible for improved cognitive performance.