Faculty member Anne Schutte with colleagues Julia Torquati, Department of Children, Youth and Family Studies, UNL, and Heidi Beattie, Troy University, recently published “Impact of urban nature on executive functioning in early and middle childhood" in the journal Environment and Behavior. We sat down with Anne to learn more.
What excited you about doing this study?
In this study, we examined how time outdoors in a green space influenced children’s cognition, in particular, their attention, inhibitory control, and working memory. This study excited me, because, first of all, I love the outdoors. Second of all, in many areas of the world, sending children outdoors to spend time in nature is an easy, low-cost method for improving cognition.
What were your research questions?
Previous research has found that time outdoors in nature improves attention in adults and in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There has not been as much research with typically-developing children or with young children, so our study included 4- to 5-year-olds and school-age children who had not been diagnosed with ADHD in order to determine if time in nature has an immediate influence on attention, working memory and inhibitory control.
How did you test them?
Children came into the lab twice. In one session, they went for a walk on downtown streets and in the other session they went for a walk through green space on campus. They then came back into the lab and completed computer-based tests of spatial working memory, attention, and inhibitory control.
What did you find?
We found that both the preschoolers and school-aged children were faster on the attention task following the walk through green space than following the downtown walk. There was no difference in accuracy, however. In addition, preschoolers’ spatial working memory was more stable following the walk in green space than following the downtown walk. The walk did not influence performance on the measure of inhibitory control.
What are the practical implications of your findings?
This study has practical implications for how, as adults, we structure children’s time and environments. In the U.S., children are spending less time in natural environments than they have in the past. The results of this study suggest that spending less time in nature could be influencing aspects of their cognition. When combined with the broader literature, this research has implications for implementing green space around schools, daycares, and homes. Just having green space is not enough, though. We also need to allow children time in nature. Parents or teachers of children, especially young children, may not always want children to have access to more natural environments where the chance of getting dirty is significant. As the mother of the only kindergartner in her school to ever have to change all of her clothes (even her underwear) due to being covered from head to toe in mud, I know how frustrating it can be, but this data suggests that it is important for even young children to spend time in natural environments.
There are still many questions that need to be examined, including whether time in nature as a young child is related to cognitive ability later in development, but even now we know enough to encourage children and adults to spend time in nature. So, if you are having difficulty concentrating, go take a walk in a park and take your children with you.
Schutte, A. R., Torquati, J. C., & Beattie, H. L. (2015). Impact of urban nature on executive functioning in early and middle childhood. Environment and Behavior. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0013916515603095