Study: Outdoor Green Spaces Make Kids Smarter

Group of five happy children jumping outdoors.

Is it coincidence that Isaac Newton discovered gravity while sitting under a tree? Or that Albert Einstein said, “Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.”

A study was just released that says outdoor green spaces make kids smarter.

The study assessed whether exposure to green space improved the cognitive development in children. Researchers tested the cognitive development of 2,593 schoolchildren in Spain, ages 7 to 10.

Three types of cognitive development tests were given to examine working memory, superior working memory and inattentiveness. The kids were given computerized cognitive tests every three months for a year. The inattentive kids only made it through half of the first test (just kidding).

The result was that the greener the area surrounding a child’s home, commuting route and school, the more likely the child was to have improved memory. Greenness also decreased inattentiveness. This is pretty great news for parents who have to get their kid’s attention by yelling their name 15 times while their slack-jawed kid stares at the TV. Greenness was measured by using a high resolution satellite that gauges vegetation levels.

After a year, the participants who were exposed to the most green areas experienced an overall memory increase by an average of 22.8 percent, superior working memory increase (holding items in your memory while solving a problem) by 15.2 percent, and inattentiveness declined by 18.9 percent.

What should you do with this information? Well, if you’re a mediocre parent you’ll paint trees on your kid’s bedroom wall like it’s a jungle. If you’re a good parent, you’ll make sure your kid spends time at the park. And if you’re an amazing parent, you might send your kid off to study in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.

Or, you could give your kid an anti-pollution mask to wear to school because the researchers said 65 percent of the cognitive improvement could have been due to reduced pollution. Or send your kid off to play video games because amazingly those can increase cognition too, and no, that study wasn’t funded by Xbox.

Another study shows that the color green enhances creativity. (So does doing drugs, but for some reason no one’s recommending that.) In this experiment participants were shown green, white, red, grey or blue. After seeing a flash of the color, they were given a creative task. One task was to list as many creative ways as possible to use a tin can. Another job was to list as many “round things” their round head could fathom. There was a strong correlation — participants who saw green were more creative. That’s it, I’m covering my office walls in moss.

Researchers also studied 60 participants who hiked for four days. Half the group took a creativity test before the hike. The other half took the test toward the end of the hike — but not while being chased by a bear because when that happens you get very creative. Guess which group tested as more creative? Yep, the four-day hikers scored 50 percent higher in creativity than the group tested before hiking.

People say “think outside the box,” but maybe they should just say “think outside.”

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Ruth Atchley, department chair and associate professor of cognitive and clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, commented: “Nature is a place where our mind can rest, relax and let down those threat responses. Therefore, we have resources left over — to be creative, to be imaginative, to problem solve — that allow us to be better, happier people who engage in a more productive way with others.” She calls the constant distractions in our lives a “threat,” saying: “They sap our resources to do the fun thinking and cognition humans are capable of — things like creativity, or being kind and generous, along with our ability to feel good and be in a positive mood.”

How should you get started surrounding yourself with green? First, find a way to fit walking through nature into your daily or weekly routine. Second, book a trip to an amazing national park like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Denali or Olympic. Third, go live in a bush with a homeless guy.

And think about what Ralph Waldo Emerson said as he (likely) reposed by the beach, “Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, and drink in the wild air.” Be refreshed. Be re-energized. The mountains are calling … and you must GO!

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Lighttruth, 2) Flickr/EddyVan3000

Renee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.