Studies find many social, environmental, medical and economic benefits of green spaces. In general, greenery increases the quality of life with its positive impact on our physical and mental health. Functioning as a powerful filter, green spaces clean the air we breathe, making the most vital contribution to our physical health. But what about our mental health? Can exposure to a green space improve our brains? More importantly, could this improvement create healthier and smarter future generations? Science says “yes!”.
Researchers from the United States, Norway and Spain investigated the impact of exposure to green spaces on schoolchildren’s cognitive development. Participants of this study were 2593 schoolchildren between 7 and 10 years old from 36 schools in Barcelona. Both genders were represented equally in the group.
Children’s cognitive development was assessed based on the change in the development of working memory, superior working memory and inattentiveness in a 12-month period. Kids took a cognitive test every three month, amounting to four tests in total. Using satellite data for the measurement of greenness, the research team, led by Payam Dadvand (the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona), could assess children’s exposure to green spaces at home, on the way to school and at school.
The results are striking. The research team found that 5% increase in the development of working memory and 6% in the superior working memory, as well as 1% decrease in inattentiveness were associated with exposure to green spaces. What’s interesting is that greenness in school related to cognitive development better than greenness at home or in commute. Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, one of the co-authors of the article, told Washington Post, “The kids where there was greener around the school, we saw better cognitive development, so they did better on these tests. It was about a five percent difference over the time period.” Although five percent doesn’t seem that huge but thinking about the whole population rather than the study participants, five percent can make a great difference.
Additional analysis resulted in a significant correlation between lower carbon levels and greenness. Drawing from this and other tests, the study claimed that the difference in influence on cognitive ability between the green spaces around school and home/commute can be related to the ability of the greenery to filter pollutants in the air.
The authors wrote that the study was the first of its kind, suggesting further research on the topic. However, aware of the results of their study, the research team did provide valuable insight on the real-life implications. They wrote: “Our findings, therefore, hold importance for policymakers when translating evidence into feasible and achievable targeted interventions such as improving greenness at schools, given that improved cognitive development in children attending schools with more greenness could result in an advantage in mental capital, which, in turn, would have lasting effects through the life-course.”
Dadvand, P., Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J., Esnaola, M., Forns, J., Basagaña, X., Alvarez-Pedrerol, M., … & Jerrett, M. (2015). Green spaces and cognitive development in primary schoolchildren. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(26), 7937-7942. Retrieved from: http://www.pnas.org/content/112/26/7937.full.pdf
Mooney,C. (2015, June 15). Why green spaces are good for your kid’s brain? The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/06/15/why-green-spaces-are-good-for-your-kids-brain/?utm_term=.e0e47f69c615